JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods edge near
Natchez, Mississippi, USA

February 16,  2009

BAYOU WALKING
In most of the US bayous are thought of as small, slow-moving streams or creeks, or lakes associated with the Deep South's swamps and rivers. Around here bayous are something else entirely. Most people outside the region would refer to our bayous as deep, steep-walled, sandy-bottomed gullies or ravines that usually are dry, except after rains. You can see Karen hiking down the bayou below her house at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216by.jpg.

Our bayous are peculiar to a very particular kind of landscape -- a fast-eroding upland mantled with a thick layer of loess, which is dust deposited by wind at the end of the last ice age. Our loess-mantled upland is eroding fast -- in geological terms -- because it's right next to the Mississippi River floodplain. This gives water running off our upland a steep gradient, so it runs off fast, eroding.

Loess erodes to a "high angle of repose," which means that in many places our bayous have vertical walls. If there's a vertical loess wall facing north in the bottom of a sheltered bayou, you get a shadier- and moister-than-usual habitat where mosses, ferns, liverworts and delicate wildflowers feel at home.

If you want to know more about how our loess hills I've produced several pages on the topic at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/loess.html.

This week I've done a bit of bayou walking so most of this Newsletter deals with things found in them.

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PICKEREL FROG BREAKS HIBERNATION
On February 9th in the bayou below Karen's house just a foot or so above the sandy floor we found a Pickerel Frog, RANA PALUSTRIS, so benumbed by the cold that my camera lens two inches from his face didn't provoke a flinch. Maybe he'd just emerged from hibernation. You can see him, with distinctive parallel rows of dark, blocky blotches running down his back, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216pk.jpg.

Pickerel Frogs are a fair-sized species, about three inches long. Sometimes they're confused with heavily blotched leopard frogs, but the leopard frog's back blotches aren't so consistently rectangular as the Pickerel's. One summer back in my hermit days near here a Pickerel Frog became a neighbor for several weeks. In the July 14, 2002 Newsletter I reported that "He spends the day beneath my trailer clinging to a cinderblock, then ranges around at night."

Often when I refer to animals as "he" I don't really know which sex lies before me: I just can't bear to refer to critters as "its," so I call them "hes." However I'm pretty sure the frog in the picture is a "he" because of his large eardrums, or tympanums, which in the picture shows up as a brown, circular area behind and about the size of the eye. Often male frogs and toads have larger tympanums than females, and the tympanum in the picture is much larger than the individual's in the Audubon field guide, which I reckon to be a female.

Notice how the bones in the frog's back protrude. This is what you'd expect of a frog who's been hibernating, slowly but continually burning energy stored in his body fat.

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CRICKET FROG
Not far from the Pickerel Frog, also at the bayou floor's edge, a grayish frog hardly larger than my thumbnail catapulted from beneath my descending foot just in time. It took a while to find his resting spot because he was beautifully camouflaged among dry, brown leaves. When I finally located him he was so warty that I thought he was a baby toad, but soon doubt arose. See what you think at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216cf.jpg.

His snout seemed too long and rounded to be a toad's, there were no signs of a toad's parotoid glands behind the eyes, and his middle back toe seemed too long and slender to be a toad's. Eventually it occurred to me that this must be a cricket frog, despite cricket frogs I've known being of different colors, and nearly always showing a nice black triangle atop the head between the eyes. Best I can figure out, the picture shows a Northern Cricket Frog, ACRIS CREPITANS, but it sure is a plain one. The species is famous for its varied coloring and patterning, however. Just in New York six distinct but intergrading color morphs and four pattern morphs have been recognized.

For the last couple of weeks I've been hearing both cricket and chorus frogs calling from a pond below my trailer. Cricket frog calls sound like small metal balls being clicked together very fast. You can see two Northern Cricket Frog morphs and hear them calling (click the orange "Listen" bar at the top left) at http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recNum=AR0554 .

Cricket frogs are members of the Treefrog Family, even though they aren't arboreal and their toe tips lack the roundish adhesive pads of other treefrogs.

Northern Cricket Frog populations have suffered greatly during recent years, mostly from pesticides, fertilizers and habitat destruction. Though I remember them as abundant when I was a child in Kentucky, now Acris crepitans is listed as Endangered in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, Threatened in New York, and as a Species of Special Concern in Indiana, Michigan, and West Virginia.

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PARTRIDGE-BERRY FRUITING
On the bayou's steep, moss-covered walls the most eye-catching plant is certainly the little evergreen creeping herb called Partridge-Berry, MITCHELLA REPENS, which is conspicuous because of its brilliantly red, pea-sized fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216pb.jpg.

This little plant occurs throughout forested eastern North America and thrives on sheltered slopes such as our bayous' steep, lower walls. In this area Partridge-Berry occurs strictly "down in the bayous," the uplands between bayous being too dry and exposed.

Both taxonomically and anatomically Partridge-Berry is a bit surprising. It belongs to the mainly tropical Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae. In Mexico we've often noted this family's main field marks: opposite leaves (two at each stem node); flowers with inferior ovaries, and; conspicuous stipules connecting petiole bases.

Anatomically the interesting feature is that its flowers occur in pairs, but the two flowers' ovaries unite into one fruit. The close-up of a single fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216pc.jpg shows two five-lobed calyxes topping it, with no visible hint of the fruit actually consisting of two fused ovaries.

The red berries are edible but they're so small and tasteless that not many people bother with them. One of the plant's many common names is Squaw Vine, and I wonder if that name reflects one of its several medicinal uses: "Partridge Berry is among the best remedies for preparing the uterus and whole body for child birth," I read on the Internet at http://www.holisticonline.com/Herbal-Med/_Herbs/h275.htm.

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ADDING COUNTY PLANT-SPECIES RECORDS
I wanted to see Partridge-Berry's distribution in Mississippi so I went to the USDA PLANTS Database at http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=MIRE and clicked on Mississippi. That took me to the page at http://plants.usda.gov/java/county?state_name=Mississippi&statefips=28&symbol=MIRE. There I saw that the species occurs more or less throughout the state, except for the lowland Delta Region of the northwest. Also I saw that the species hadn't been reported in our county, Adams.

Plant identifiers, even those of us not affiliated with an institution, are invited to contribute to these species distribution maps, as I did. As part of the submission process you can upload voucher pictures, which is a good idea if you're not recognized as an expert.

To sign up and submit a new record for your county go to http://plants.usda.gov/du/DistributionUpdate.html and click on "Continue." Then just follow directions.

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AMERICAN ELM FLOWERING
A couple of weeks ago I featured flowers of the Winged Elm, Ulmus alata, and now I have a picture of flowers of the American Elm, ULMUS AMERICANA, so you can see the differences. The Winged Elm's flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/wing-elm.htm.

The American Elm's differently arranged flowers are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216ae.jpg.

The two species' flowers share very similar structure but you can see that the American Elm's blossoms dangle at the end of very long flower stems, or pedicles. Also, notice that Winged Elm flowers branch from a central axis or rachis extending from the flower bud, while American Elm Flowers arise individually from the bud, like long-stem roses from a small, round goblet -- they're "fascicled" as opposed to Winged Elm flowers being arranged in a raceme, or "racemose."

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YELLOW JESSAMINE FLOWERING
Nowadays when you're traveling down roads through our piney woods occasionally you see spectacular, bathtub- sized clusters of a vine's evergreen leaves intermingled with bright, yellow flowers ten to twenty feet above ground. Such a cluster is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216ja.jpg.

This is Yellow Jessamine, GELSEMIUM SEMPERVIRENS, and back during my hermit days I couldn't write enough about it, for among native Mississippi plants this species is among the earliest-blooming of the really spectacular harbingers of spring. Often I first realized that Yellow Jessamine was flowering only when I found discarded, 4-inch-long, megaphone-shaped yellow blossoms on the ground. Learning about the flowering this way chastised me a bit, for it meant that the vine had been flowering for several days up in the canopy without my noticing. As I wrote in my February 9, 2003 Newsletter:

This fallen blossom was like the calling card left by a friend who, because of an unanswered tap at a window deep in the night, steals away giggling, knowing how you'll bite your lip when you realize how once again you've missed the fragrance she might have been willing to share.

And Yellow Jessamine's blossoms really are fragrant, and the vines produce flowers for a long time. In 2002 I already had noted them blossoming at Christmas, but the peak of flowering came only in mid March. In that Newsletter I wrote:

Now Yellow Jessamine is in its glory. Sometimes you see absolutely spectacular displays and if the background is the blue sky or the forest's black shadow, and the yellow flowers are in direct sunlight, you just have to stand and look."

What a joy that this week I've seen exactly that, and was able to capture some of the feeling for you. Look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216jj.jpg.

Yellow Jessamine is mostly a Deep South species, not making it as far north as my childhood home area in Kentucky, or even most of Tennessee. That's a little surprising when you see how robust and common it is here.

Yellow Jessamine used to reside in the same family as Buddleia Butterfly-Bush, but recent studies have noted that its features are so unique that it's been shifted into its own family, the Gelsemiaceae, on the Tree of Life positioned not far from the Gentian Family.

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COMMON BLUE VIOLETS UP
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216vv.jpg you see a little violet currently poking up through the lawn grass and last year's leaves. It's the Common Blue Violet, VIOLA SORORIA, one of the best known of native North American wildflowers.

I've written about this species before, especially how I like to eat its leaves in salads. The last time I mentioned that Genevieve of Natchez wrote telling me about her sister's violet-blossom jelly, which has a very delicate flavor and is great on homemade bread. Gloria in New York wrote saying that she candies the blossoms, but warned that "they are very delicate and the sugar is very heavy so they kind of turn out like little sugarized violet blobs."

Once you start wandering in the woods you'll be amazed at how many violet species turn up, including white-, yellow- and even green-flowered species. Twenty-two violet names are listed for Mississippi. You might enjoy browsing through some of the pictures linked to on the Natural History of North America Violet Page at http://www.nearctica.com/flowers/viola/sviola.htm.

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SPOTS ON MAGNOLIA LEAVES
Each afternoon I seem to get a bit hungry around 4 PM so as Public Radio's All Things Considered comes on I start up a small campfire and fix some cornbread. It happens that at 4 PM the afternoon sun slants in low very prettily translucing through the Southern Magnolia's leaves next to my fire, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216ss.jpg.

The glowing leaves always contribute to a sense of easygoing enchantment in the area, which I enjoy, but eventually I began wondering about all those spots speckling each leaf. When I finally went to take a closer look I found what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216st.jpg.

The spots were much smaller than a BB but even with the naked eye they looked like little foliose lichens of the kind you find on rocks and trees where there's not much air pollution. Some search-engine work on the keywords "lichen magnolia leaves" brought up an illustrated paper from the University of Florida, in PDF format, which you can read online or download here.

The little dots were indeed lichens, probably of the genus STRIGULA, but there was more to it than that.

First of all, remember that lichens are actually compound organisms consisting of two completely different species -- a species of alga enabling the lichen to photosynthesize, and a species of fungus giving the lichen form, help retaining water, a reproductive mechanism, and other things.

It happens that Strigula's alga, whose scientific name is Cephaleuros virescens, can live on its own without being associated with a fungus, and is somewhat parasitic. On magnolia leaves the alga growing alone causes a leaf-spot disease called Algal Leaf Spot or "Green Scurf," which manifests itself as raised, greenish-brown to rusty spots.

Sometimes but not always the Cephaleuros algal spots combine with any of several GENERA of fungi, the most commonly reported being Massaria and Microthyriella. When this happens the two species together form the tiny, round, grayish lichen-spots seen on our magnolia leaves.

In our last picture notice that most of the spots are completely gray but some are partly green-orange. I'm interpreting the green-orange parts as Cephaleuros alga not yet combined with a fungus to form a lichen.

Does the Strigula lichen constitute a dangerous disease for the magnolias they parasitize?

The reports I've seen say that it's not a serious disease at all. On our magnolias they occupy leaves only at about chest level, so the vast majority of leaves are not parasitized at all, or very little. It's clear that many leaves have been infested for years, and still look very healthy.

Strigula lichen mainly occurs in the subtropics on a variety of broadleaf evergreen leaf types.

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MYSTERY PICTURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216ih.jpg what's that?

Here's a hint: This week not only did the Chipping Sparrows start chipping but also the irises began blooming. In town the irises have been out for the last week or so, but it's warmer there.

So, the picture shows a certain twisty view of one of Karen's irises. Specifically, the slender, yellow things are "hairs" of the "beard" running down the iris's "falls," which normally is overtopped by the overarching "style arm" bearing a single stamen. To understand, you may need to visit my Iris Flower Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_iris.htm.

Once you can visualize the falls and style arm, take a look at an equally surreal view, and just as pretty, of the same blossom's style arm, bearing its single stamen beneath it, arching over the falls in the above picture, but shown from a different angle, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216ii.jpg.

If you still can't visualize how all the parts fit together, a portrait of a single iris flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090216is.jpg.

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NATURE'S PARADIGMS & WISDOM
I'm writing a new book on Nature's paradigms and the wisdom those paradigms convey. For example, recycling of resources occurs at so many levels in Nature that it constitutes "The Recycling of Resources Paradigm." The existence of that paradigm suggests to me this wisdom: It would be wise for humans to recycle resources, too.

At first I wasn't sure that many paradigms could be identified in Nature, and that they'd always offer us nuggets of wisdom. However, as my manuscript develops, it's becoming clear that that's the case.

The paradigm-identifying, wisdom-finding concept is worth thinking about because I profoundly believe that we're happier, healthier and our lifestyles are more sustainable when we live in harmony with Nature.

For me, "living in harmony with Nature" is largely an intuitive, emotional and spiritual process. However, if we are to exchange ideas about the concept we must share certain terms and concepts. For me, the concept of the natural paradigm is the most important of all.

Once we've identified a natural paradigm the next step is to reflect on, discuss and debate the wisdom revealed in it. Discussing and debating are important because another of Nature's paradigms, "The Paradigm of Irrepressible Diversity," assures that different thoughtful people can produce different thoughts about the same thing.

I'm curious about what others think about this train of thought.

Normally I'd suggest that anyone interested in exchanging ideas on the topic go to our Backyard Nature Google Group but for some reason people have practically stopped using that. Nowadays Facebook is all the rage so I've opened a Facebook page where anyone can discuss the Paradigm concept (under "The Wall") or the latest Newsletter (under "Discussion Board"). To post your own thought you need an account. If you don't have a Facebook account but want one, go to http://www.facebook.com/ and sign up.

Our page is at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Backyard-Nature/65484686209.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim