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

February 23,  2009

THIS YEAR'S CAROLINA WREN
All during my hermit years Carolina Wrens, THRYOTHORUS LUDOVICIANUS, nested in my outside kitchen, in the barn I stayed in on Sandy Creek and here and there wherever I took walks, especially in and around abandoned and semi-abandoned buildings. Though they can be as wary of humans as any wild bird, my impression is that individual Carolina Wrens deciding that humans aren't dangerous may actually prefer nesting near often-used doors and walkways. The one living in the box strapped to the overhanging porch- roof above my campfire clearly has defined my trailer as the center of his living space.

Each afternoon at around 5:30 as light begins fading he comes examining as if for the first time corners, fallen twigs, cracks in walls, and such, and sometimes lands on a broom handle or porch step actually seeming to pose to give me a good look. He's so fast, though, and my camera has to whir and accomplish so many adjustments, that I never get a great shop, just blurs and shots of where he'd been half a second earlier. The other day I did get a halfway passable shot of him when he paused to scratch himself, and that shot is at at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223wr.jpg.

When I was a kid on the farm in Kentucky we called this species House Wren because they habitually built in any birdbox or anything close to a birdbox that people put up. Later I learned that there was another bird more correctly called House Wren, a less common one without the conspicuous white eyebrow and not so much rusty-reddishness on the back. In eastern North America the only other wren halfway looking like it is the Bewick's, which is mostly a western species. However, Bewick's usually are not so reddish on the back and their tails bear conspicuous white spots.

Though Carolina Wrens are mainly southeastern North American birds the species is so adaptable that it's steadily expanding both northward and westward. It's already well established in southern Ontario and central New York, and seems set to expand to well north of the Great Lakes. That's OK with me, for this friendly little bird can make anyplace feel more like home.

*****

A MOUSE'S HARELIP
The other day I found a White-footed Mouse, PEROMYSCUS LEUCOPUS, in the backyard, apparently killed by one of several housecats who roam the area. While I had the dead mouse I looked him over, admiring some of the wonderful adaptations that make this such an abundant animal around here. For example, take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223lp.jpg.

Especially interesting was the deeply cleft upper lip. I hadn't realized that the cleft continues clear up into the nose.

Experts writing on the internet speak of split lips helping animals to manipulate food -- they're "prehensile" lips working together like two little fingers coordinating with the incisors and tongue. Cleft upper lips must help animals a lot because they appear in many fairly unrelated species -- manatees, camels, llamas, sheep (but not goats), cats, rabbits, tapirs, and more.

Rabbit expert Pam Enve explains that rabbits wiggle their noses not only because wiggling causes an increase in airflow, which enhances their ability to smell, but also because it "separates the split in their upper lip and this helps to moisturize the air and this ... also helps to improve their ability to smell because it keeps their sinus's from getting clogged." It seems like she's saying that the split channels mouth saliva to the nose, where it moistens incoming air.

Whatever the reason for that cleft reaching clear into the nose, when I saw the little mouse's finely detailed mouth and nose the main impression really wasn't that I was seeing great adaptations, but rather that this cat-killed little creature was a hairy- faced, pink-skinned little brother, so different but also so similar to myself, and I felt bad about his pointless death.

*****

PILLBUG ECDYSIS
Arthropods, including all insects, spiders, horseshoe crabs, ticks, centipedes and more, possess hard, plastic-like exterior skeletons known as exoskeletons. As an animal with an exoskeleton grows, periodically its hard covering needs to split so that it can emerge from its old "shell." Then the still-soft-shelled animal enlarges a little and, finally, the new, larger animal's bigger-than-before exoskeleton hardens. Sometimes you find old spider exoskeletons suspended in the spider's web, and of course abandoned cicada exoskeletons often are conspicuous on trees. The process of shedding an exoskeleton or an old skin (as snakes do) is called ecdysis.

So, the other day I picked up a slab of wood lying on the ground and there was a pillbug beneath it undergoing ecdysis, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223pb.jpg.

The discarded, white exoskeleton at the left must belong to another pillbug who has left the scene. You can see that the rear half of the pillbug in the picture wears an opaque covering just like the exoskeleton at the left, so the pillbug in the picture probably is about to leave a second white exoskeleton beside the first.

By the way, what's the difference between woodlice, sowbugs and pillbugs? Basically they're all the same, except that some woodlice/sowbugs can't roll into spherical "pills" so they're not called pillbugs. The name pillbug often is restricted to the genus Armadillidium. Other English names for woodlice and sowbugs include armadillo bug, cheeselog, doodlebug, roly-poly, potato bug, roll up bug and chuggypig.

*****

LONGLEAF PINE FLOWERING
Though we're in the general Deep-South distribution area of the Longleaf Pine, PINUS PALUSTRIS, I've not seen the species naturally growing here in the much- dissected uplands next to the Mississippi River. Probably its absence here reflects the effect on the soil of the thick loess mantling our landscape near the river -- loess being the wind-deposited, ice-age dust referred to last week. For example, one important way loess alters soil is by increasing its pH; soil not far to our west not derived from loess tends to be more acidic.

Still, people here admire the big trees with their dangling needles up to 18 inches long, and plant them around their houses. That's what Karen did, and right now her 15-ft-tall trees bear the curious items shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223pi.jpg.

The purplish, fingerlike things are catkin-like clusters of densely packed, spirally arranged anthers. Anthers are the male stamen's baglike structures that split open to release pollen. In fact, when I thumped the twig in my hand, a dense cloud of yellow pollen puffed out.

I removed one of the clusters, broke it at its middle, and you can see the cluster in cross-section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223pj.jpg.

Of course those are yellow pollen grains dusting my fingers. Each of the broccoli-spear-shaped, purple topped things radiating out from the central part is an anther. Each anther is composed of two pollen- containing cells, or locules, situated along one of the anther's sides, and the two cells are joined by connective tissue that expands at the top into a tough, scale-like apex.

I can't find female flower clusters -- the future cones -- on these young pines. They may be higher in the trees, or maybe they're not present on such young trees. The oval, silvery thing at the base of the male parts is the terminal bud, its thick fuzziness nicely protecting new stem and needle tissue from the cold.

*****

PLUM BLOSSOMS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223pl.jpg you see a cluster of plum flowers arising from recently opened buds. At the upper right notice how the petals have fallen from one blossom leaving five triangular, green sepals. Do you see the slender, greenish, flat- topped item arising from the center of that flower? The flat platform atop the slender thing is the stigma and the slender thing itself is the style. The style arises atop the ovary down inside the shadowy, cuplike structure from which the sepals arise.

The green, cuplike thing below the triangular sepals is worth paying attention to. You can see how male stamens with their white filaments and yellow, pollen- producing anthers arise on the cup's outer rim, and how the ovary -- the future plum -- resides down in the cup's center. The flower's separate petals also arise from the cup's rim. This cup is something most flowers don't have, but it's very typical of the Rose Family, to which plums, genus PRUNUS, belong. Technically the cup is referred to as a hypanthium.

On the twigs, notice the white, flaky "skin" peeling off here and there, and see how some of the maroon- colored flower-bud scales are silvery at their bases. This paleness is called glaucescence and it's thought to protect a plant's tender parts from intense sunlight, causing some of it to reflect away.

*****

PLUM BLOSSOMS & MATSUO BASHO'S HAIKU
This week plum trees in this area have looked like snowballs in people's green lawns. On sunny afternoons honeybees were thick among the blossoms and the fragrance was intense. Probably the most famous haiku poem about plum blossoms is the one by Matsuo Basho, who lived in Japan during the 1600s. He wrote:

plum blossom fragrance --
the sun suddenly springs up
on a mountain path

It's a famous poem, a classic, but how can you put your finger on what it's saying? The sun springs up... Is that the plum blossom fragrance's sharpness, or the quick stab of "plumlust" the fragrance evokes? The mountain path, is that the black ruggedness of a plum tree's branches? Do you feel any of that looking at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223pm.jpg.

I lay on my back, the ground cold and wet, sunlight in my eyes, mountain-path feeling, taking the picture, smelling the perfume.

Who knows what plum blossoms in early spring mean?

*****

LILY MAGNOLIA FLOWERING
Karen's flowering Lily Magnolia is just as showy as the plum trees, though in a very different way, more mellow than sharp, warmer than the plums' "mountain path." Lily Magnolias are deciduous-leaved, 10-ft-tall bushes, with hand-size, pinkish flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223mg.jpg.

Lily Magnolias, MAGNOLIA LILIFLORA, around here more commonly called Tulip Magnolias, shouldn't be confused with Saucer Magnolias, M. soulangena, who produce similar large, pink flowers on leafless branches. Saucer Magnolias constitute a hybrid between our Lily Magnolia and M. denudata. Saucer Magnolias make larger plants, becoming small trees, and I think they're more commonly planted, at least farther north, than Lily Magnolias. In the above picture notice that the curling-back sepals at the base of the petals are just a fraction of the petals' length. In Saucer Magnolias the sepals are about half as long as the petals. Lily Magnolias are definitely shrubby, producing several slender stems from the base, while Saucer Magnolias are more tree-like.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223mh.jpg you see a cross section of a Lily Magnolia blossom showing typical magnolia flower anatomy. The white, oval item from which the purplish things arise is an elongated receptacle providing a foothold for the flower's sexual parts. The upwardly curving things are male stamens whose white sides are anther cells with slits that later will open to release pollen. Having numerous stamens is a prime feature of the Magnolia Family.

The pineapple-like structure atop the receptacle is the female gynoecium consisting of numerous pistils aggregated into a cone-like body. Most other flowers bear just one pistil, which consists of stigma, style and ovary, but here several pistils are crammed together into one structure, and that's another important feature of the family.

Having many stamens and several pistils in each flower is considered to be "primitive" -- to have appeared early during flowering plant evolution. When I was a student all flowering plants were divided into monocots like grasses and lilies, and dicots like daises, roses and a huge number of other flowering plants. Gene sequencing has shown that it's much more complex than that, and that magnolias aren't "core dicots," or "eudicots." Magnolia-type species broke off from other flowering plants about the same time monocots and "core dicots" separated. You can see this represented schematically in the branch of the Evolutionary Tree of Life presented at http://www.backyardnature.net/amborell.htm.

*****

BLACK CHERRY BEGINNINGS
When I passed through here last June I photographed cherries on the Black Cherry tree, PRUNUS SEROTINA, next to my trailer. That picture is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616bc.jpg.

Right now that same tree is leafless, but its buds are expanding, even bursting, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223wc.jpg.

In this week's picture the three buds at the twig tip are leaf buds. The bud scales' green patches show how the buds have enlarged, exposing tender new growth that earlier was protected by the smaller, dark chestnut scales. Before long leaf-bearing stems will emerge from these buds.

Below the three leaf buds a flower bud already has burst. The green, granular items at the far left are future flowers that will be held in an elongate, dangling cluster called a raceme. By the time the flowers are open leaves will have appeared. During warm, sunny days, you'd be surprised how fast the buds are enlarging, and how much farther from the flower- bud the future raceme of pretty white flowers emerges.

*****

PROJECT BUDBURST
I use the word "burst" above instead of "break open" because "budburst" is an accepted term. Online there's even a Project BudBurst, referring to itself as "A National Phenology Network Field Campaign for Citizen Scientists." Their goal is to gather information on environmental and climate change -- first leafing, first flower, first fruit ripening on trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses -- in the US, and you are invited to participate. If you're interested, check out http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/.

*****

GROUND-IVY FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223g1.jpg you see an abundant little creeping plant naturalized from Europe, Ground-Ivy or Creeping Charlie, GLECHOMA HEDERACEA. It's all over Karen's semi-shaded, rich- soiled backyard, so thick that it even dominates the grass. When you walk on it the crushed herbage emits an oily, musky odor that Karen says makes her sneeze; she calls it "Stinkyweed" but I rather like the odor.

I'm especially appreciating the plant right now because it's an early bloomer and I like seeing the plant's delicate little flowers, a close-up shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223g2.jpg.

In that picture you can see that the flower lacks the radial symmetry of most blossoms, displaying bilateral symmetry instead -- one side being a mirror image of the other. The corolla's lobes join at their bases to form a flaring cup. The wishbone-shaped item arching from the corolla's top is the two-lobed style, each recurving lobe bearing a stigmatic zone on the inner or upper side. Pollen grains germinate on the stigmatic zone, send their sex-germ-carrying pollen tubes down through the style to the deeply four-lobed ovary in the flower's bottom. Those deeply four-lobed ovaries are typical of the Mint Family, to which Ground-Ivy belongs.

In the last picture notice how the hairs arising on the lower corolla lip -- the pollinators' "landing platform" -- are knobby at their tops. Those knobs are glands. Some glandular hairs are sticky so that insects hesitate to pass through them, but I'd not expect such hairs to grow on a flower's "landing pad" where pollinators are wanted. I suspect the hair glands provide some kind of food meant to attract pollinators, but that's only a guess.

As often is the case with plants with smelly herbage, Ground-Ivy has been used medicinally. Earlier its main use was for coughs and chronic lung problems, but also for "purifying the blood," cleaning ulcers, and much more.

You might like seeing an old-time, color botanical plate showing this plant's parts in fine detail at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Illustration_Glechoma_hederacea0.jpg.

*****

JELLY FUNGI EMERGING
Last week a cold front came through dumping two or three inches of rain. This week, just as they're supposed to, jelly fungi appeared, such as the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090223jf.jpg.

That honey-colored, rubbery little mass about twice the size of a thumbnail arises from a twig fallen from a tree. When I say it's a jelly fungus I'm not saying much, for many jelly fungus species exist, spread through several ORDERS. To grasp what that means, remember that among birds there's the penguin order, the woodpecker order, the parrot order, etc. Saying that jelly fungi occur in several orders implies big differences among the many jelly-fungus types.

I'm guessing that what's shown in my picture is one of the "ear fungi," maybe genus Auricularia. Even experts have trouble figuring out species in this group, especially because they change color, texture and form depending on age, humidity and other factors.

That doesn't deter the pragmatic Chinese from using certain jelly fungus species in their egg roles and other dishes, however. In fact, most jelly fungi appear to be edible, though they're rather tasteless. If you were with me during my Querétaro time you may remember the day I met a lady picking them in the uplands. I've read that American pioneers used to dip jelly fungi in syrup, then dry them in the sun to nibble on during the winter as sweets.

Though jelly fungi don't produce distinct gills, they do reproduce with spores.

*****

EATING GREEN
The mustard green seedlings in my coldframe are barely big enough to eat. Some afternoons I go thin them, tossing tops of thinned-out plants into a bowl. Later I crack an egg into the bowl, mix, and fry the green, sticky mass into a kind of omelet paddy that browns up nicely and tastes great when spritzed with vinegar and slipped between slabs of hot, moist cornbread. I love the sharp mustard taste, somehow complementary to the cornbread's mellow, baked-corn flavor.

The experience is satisfying from another perspective, too. Each day when I peel back the coldframe's plastic sheet and see those mustard-green seedlings green against the black earth, their heads flat against the sun for maximum exposure, I'm struck by the impression that the seedlings are little solar receptors. Upon germination the first thing the plant had done was to deploy its solar cells, its first two leaves or cotyledons, and now that the seed's stored energy is exhausted the plant has gone 100% solar, gathering sunlight energy and storing it among the bonds of its body's carbohydrate molecules.

When I eat the greens I transfer solar energy stored among the seedlings' carbohydrate molecules into my own body. The energy equation for that is:

SUN --> MUSTARD GREEN PLANT --> ME

I like being part of such a simple, sustainable, non- taxable, not-subject-to-inflation or -depression, profoundly dependable and powerful formula. I like "eating green" both in its literal and figurative senses. I like knowing that my thoughts, my movement, everything about me, keeps going because of sunlight energy, with not much standing between the energy source and me.

In the old days, even people who ate animal flesh had simple energy formulas, something like:

SUN --> GRASS --> COW --> HUMAN

Of course nowadays most people's food-energy formulas bristle with energy inputs from petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, and the energy needed for processing, packaging and transportation. We've structured our society so that it's cheaper to eat unhealthy processed foods from far away, made with enormous energy consumption and waste, than to eat nutritious foods grown locally with sustainable methods.

However, whatever the realities of infrastructure, politics and society, it's a beautiful fact that anyone, anytime, can simplify his or her food-energy formula. For instance, a garden or just a coldframe in the backyard can help a lot and so can preparing your own meals. Simply refusing to eat anything that's obviously overly processed and with too much packaging helps. Anyone, anytime, can stop being one way, and start being another, and I with my nicely browned, mustard-green omelet-paddy on hot, moist, campfire cornbread can tell you that taking a step toward "eating green" feels good.

On the internet if you search on the keywords "eating green" you'll find lots of information. One place to begin is to click on "start at the beginning" at http://www.greendaily.com/2008/02/07/eating-green-an-intro/.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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