JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

April 8, 2012

TREEFROG IN CLOVER
A broad swath of the seldom-mowed lawn here is snowy with flowering White Clover. I was down on my knees and elbows chasing a butterfly when something tiny jumped right beneath me. It was a young frog no larger than my thumbnail. He's perching on a grass blade at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408fg.jpg.

Sunlight glows through his translucent back legs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408fh.jpg.

In that picture I think we can see his femurs and femoral arteries, and I wonder how such fragile-looking little legs can make the powerful leaps that carried him from grass blade to grass blade as I chased him.

This is a Squirrel Treefrog, HYLA SQUIRELLA, one of our most commonly encountered treefrogs, and found throughout the US Deep-South Coastal Plain. Our Squirrel Treefrog Page with pictures of adults is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/sq-tfrog.htm.

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MARTIN BOX
Right below my old hermit trailer at the edge of the woods a neighbor has dammed up a little pond and right next to it erected a very nice "martin box" -- a birdbox designed especially for Purple Martins. Some old-time gourds even dangle below the box offering alternative living space. Purple Martins have found the box, gourds and pond to their liking so, each day, all day long, in the background I can always hear them chortling and calling You can the whole setup at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408pu.jpg.

In that picture an all-blue-black male perches at the left, a female with a gray chest and throat sits atop the box, and a male House Sparrow stations himself right in the middle, because House Sparrows like martin boxes, too. House Sparrows typically are town or farm dwellers. We're so far from town and farms that this is the first time I've seen a House Sparrow at this area, so the neighbor's martin box must have been a strong attraction to the sparrow.

In fact, over a million North Americans put up martin boxes and many wage wars with House Sparrows and starlings, which are invasive species from Europe, and which very successfully push aside our native Purple Martins. At http://purplemartin.org/main/mgt.html, the Purple Martin Conservation Association has this to say about the matter:

When House Sparrows or European Starlings lay first claim to martin housing at unestablished sites, they fill the compartments with their nests, then chase off investigating martins. At established colony sites, House Sparrows and starlings will fight with nesting martins, kill their nestlings, and/or break eggs. Allowing House Sparrows and starlings to nest in martin housing will significantly reduce martin occupancy and productivity.

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FIRE ANTS
All here is not fresh, lush greenness, honeysuckle fragrance and birdsong. There are Fire Ants, and plenty of them. If you leave a bucket on the ground, before long a colony establishes itself there. Two colonies in a random, neglected backyard spot are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408fi.jpg.

You can examine the genuine, dew-wet, morning-walk-soiled, fire-ant-stung toe of a barefoot hermit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408fj.jpg.

Those red spots itch like crazy all through the night. Our Fire Ant page has lots of stories and pictures at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/fireants.htm.

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REMEMBERING ANOLES
During my hermit days not far from here the Fire Ants provided low-grade misery throughout all my years, but Green Anoles, ANOLIS CAROLINENSIS, almost made up for them. They were everywhere, too, always peering down at me from walls, circling my breakfast campfires as, just in a few seconds, they changed from bright green to dull brown. Only rarely did they short-circuit my computer by entering through the fan opening to stalk across my circuit boards. I'm glad to find these interesting and congenial little dinosaurs still so common upon my return.

You can see one on a stem beside my trailer this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408an.jpg.

*****

TULIP POPLARS FLOWERING
Tuesday afternoon suddenly a roar arose in the forest, a flash and a clap of thunder followed, treetops all around began bending and then there came the cracking sound of a tree falling, all within just a few seconds. I'd seen the storm coming, but its sudden arrival still surprised me. For awhile I was running barefoot looking skyward, trying to avoid falling trees, falling over things, and that must have been funny to see.

The fallen tree turned out to be a healthy looking, medium-size Tulip Poplar, LIRIODENDRON TULIPIFERA. Tulip Poplars are known for their brittle wood that snaps easily under stress, but also they grow fast so that soon storm damaged trees regain their habitually pleasing shapes. Our tree, though, lost most of its body, so it'll almost be starting from scratch.

The fallen part bore many two-inch-wide (5cm), unusually handsome blossoms, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408l0.jpg.

In that picture notice the Tulip Poplar's distinctive leaves, their tips not sharply pointed like most leaves but rather broad and flat with a shallow notch. A flower glowing in golden morning sunlight is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408l1.jpg.

The similarity of that blossom with a magnolia flower -- large petals, many stamens, many pistils tightly clustered in a spiraling manner into a conelike structure -- makes sense because Tulip Poplars are members of the Magnolia Family. The twigs are magnolia-like, too, with oversized stipules, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408l2.jpg.

That picture shows the tip of a Tulip Poplar branch, the slender, bent structure at the top being an expanding leaf's petiole. The leaf's folded blade is in the process of withdrawing from the large, envelope-like stipule occupying the center of the picture.

Remember that stipules are modified leaves that typically protect very young tissue during early stages of development. Once the leaf in the picture is fully expanded and no longer inside the stipule, the stipule will fall off, leaving behind a scar encircling the stem. In the picture, at the base of the top petiole going off to the right, you can see the "line of abscission" where the stipule will break off later. Below that line other "stipular rings" also are clearly visible. Magnolia stems have similar rings.

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BANANA SHRUB
Speaking of Magnolia-Family features, just outside the window of the room where I write there's a ten-ft-tall (3m) shrub or small tree bearing the magnolia-like leaves and magnolia-like flowers shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408ba.jpg.

That flower also shows the basic magnolia-flower structure, except for one thing: The green, conelike thing in the flower's center, composed of densely clustered, spirally arranged pistils, perches above the stamens on a stalk. Traditionally, taxonomists have regarded that stalk as significant enough to banish this species from the genus Magnolia into its own genus, the genus Michelia.

Our plant is MICHELIA FIGO, commonly known as the Banana Shrub because of the distinctive, sweet banana scent of its flowers. And what a glorious fragrance it is, especially in the night, and especially on calm early mornings when I sit next to the window with a hot cup of tea. Other English names the little tree goes by are Banana Magnolia and Port Wine Magnolia, even though the plant isn't classified as a magnolia.

However, in 2006, a gene-sequencing study found that the genus Michelia lies within the genus Magnolia, so eventually it may be recognized formally as a Magnolia. Maybe the stalk holding up the pistil-cluster isn't such a big deal after all.

Banana Shrubs are native to China, but here in the US Deep South for many decades they've been regarded as typical and highly desirable citizens of "Old South" gardens. They grow well in shade and seem to like our climate.

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PIGNUTS FLOWERING
The Pignut Hickories are flowering, their yellow-green, four-inch-long (10cm) catkins of stacked male flowers dangling among sunlight engorged, pinnately compound leaves (mostly 5-7 leaflets), as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408hi.jpg.

So early in the season it's hard to find female flowers, unless you know what you're looking for. I found them, nothing but tiny, pale yellow tufts at the tips of twigs recently expanded from buds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408hj.jpg.

In that picture the brown-hairy item pointing toward the top, right is the beginning of a leaf. On the leaf's right side you see four green protuberances. The top one is the future leaf's terminal leaflet and the three lower ones are future lower leaflets. Three similar bumps arise on the other side, accounting for a future compound leaf with seven leaflets.

Bark of the tree's ft-wide trunk is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408hl.jpg.

Beneath the tree I had to scrape lots of leaf litter away before finding the nut remnants shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408hk.jpg.

Notice that on these mature pignuts the husk is thin and splits only about halfway to the nut's base. Also, the edges of the splitting husk sections turn up just a bit, forming a low, thin "wing" where the section edges meet. These two features help distinguish this species from similar pignut taxa that produce husks that split to the base, and whose husk sections don't form "wings."

But, here's something interesting: A three minute stroll away a similarly flowering Pignut turned up with nuts beneath it bearing husks that split all the way to the nuts' bases, and the bark of that tree was flakier than that shown above.

In the old days, figuring out our local pignut taxa was frustrating. In fact, now we know that it was more than that -- it was basically "a fool's task." Back then we just didn't know how slippery pignut taxonomy was. Here's what the Flora of North America says about CARYA GLABRA, which is the technical name we'd give our local pignuts IF we had to give a traditional binomial technical name:

Carya glabra is a highly polymorphic species. Tight- barked trees bearing large pear-shaped fruits are common along the Gulf Coast... Trees with exfoliating bark, reddish petioles, and small, compressed, ellipsoid fruits that dehisce to the base... are more common at higher latitudes. Carya glabra intergrades with C. floridana, C. pallida, and C. texana, and it is reported to hybridize with the diploid C. cordiformis...

From what I see here, this "polymorphism," this intergrading and hybridizing are not rare, isolated incidents. I seem to find as many non-standard trees as I do those neatly fitting the basic description of Carya glabra.

Whatever the taxonomy of this species, nothing detracts from the enormous value of its hickory nuts to the local ecosystem. It was hard for me to find nuts below the trees because so many critters eat them -- squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, Raccoons, mice, rats, rabbits, and even Wild Turkeys, Crows, Bluejays, woodpeckers and other birds. Crude fat content in the nuts of some hickories reaches as high as 80%. Of course humans can eat the nuts, too, raw or cooked, though pignuts are smaller than those of some hickory species, and few people bother with them.

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SOUTHERN DEWBERRIES
In an occasionally mowed lawn here a couple of years ago a fruit tree was set out, protected from the deer by a circle of fence wire. The tree died but the wire remained, enabling an island of weeds to thrive in an expanse of mowed grass. Among the weeds is what's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408ru.jpg.

Those are fruits of the Southern Dewberry, RUBUS TRIVIALIS. I call them fruits instead of berries because technically the red and black objects in the picture are "aggregate fruits," as diagrammed at http://www.backyardnature.net/3_fruit.gif.

That picture diagrams a cross-section of various flower types. The pink parts are petals, the yellow-green parts are female pistils, each comprising stigma, style and ovary. You can see that in aggregate fruits several female pistils occur in a single blossom. That's what happens in dewberry, blackberry and raspberry flowers. Each pistil develops into a "druplet" -- one of the juicy, spherical parts of the aggregate fruit we call a dewberry.

So, in our dewberry picture, each druplet in the fruit is a mature pistil, and there's a neat close-up of one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408rv.jpg.

In that picture the brown, slender items arising in the center of each druplet are dried-up styles topped by stigmas.

A fast-growing Southern Dewberry shoot-tip is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408rw.jpg.

There you can see that the dewberry's leaves are "digitately compound," like the five digits on a hand, and that the stems are sublimely stickery. A surprisingly pretty close-up of this stickeriness is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408rx.jpg.

Note that the spines are of two kinds, and that the slender ones are gland tipped. These features help distinguish Southern Dewberries from several other dewberry species.

In the past I've feasted royally on these dewberries. Sometimes large expanses of them provide gallons and gallons of very large, succulent, sweet fruits. However, the ones available here now are fairly tasteless, maybe because of the heavy rains we've been having. When it dries up a bit, I'll be looking for them again.

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LITTLE QUAKING-GRASS
Along the winding gravel-and-sand road coming through the woods to the camp there's a little 18-inch-tall (45cm), weedy roadside herb you might not notice unless you're just looking for such a thing, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408by.jpg.

Its diffuse clusters of Chinese-lantern-like flowers shudder with the merest breeze, very prettily so if back-lighted by the rising or setting sun. You can see that the narrow, upward directed blades arising from the stems below the flowers are grasslike, and in fact this is a grass, but a species with very distinctive, easy-to-recognize flowers. They're shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408bz.jpg.

Each of those dangling, triangular (or "deltoid") items is a flower cluster -- in grass terminology called a spikelet. Each spikelet is composed of nine or so flowers, or florets. You might enjoy relating what's seen in the above picture with the floral anatomy labeled and discussed on our Grass Flowers page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm.

This is BRIZA MINOR, most commonly known in English as Little Quaking-Grass. At least in North America where it's a weed, it's regarded as having little value as a forage plant and for wildlife. It's native to the Mediterranean Basin, but in North America it's commonly encountered in the US southeastern and western states.

And, if you get close and look at it from just the right angle, it's pretty. And with the changes and extinctions to be wrought by global warming, who knows what value it'll have here in the future?

*****

DOG VOMIT EATS WOLF'S MILK
It all began during my last visit here two and a half years ago when a big oak fell and I chainsawed and axed much of it into kindling for Karen's wood-burning stove. Since then the firewood has remained stacked outside and now is starting to get a bit fungusy. So, I wasn't surprised when a bright cluster of pea-sized, spherical items showed up on some kindling, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408sm.jpg.

Wanting to confirm my suspicion that they were puffballs, with my thumbnail I inexpertly tried to slice a longitudinal section across one of the spheres so I could see the thing's internal structure. However, instead of breaking apart it squirted out orangish goo like a squashed turtle egg, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408sn.jpg.

Now I knew that, instead of being a fungus, it was probably a slime mold. On the Internet it was easy to confirm that it was probably the slime mold LYCOGALA EPIDENDRUM, commonly known as Wolf's Milk. A few weeks ago we looked at a slime mold in the Yucatán and you may want to review our introduction to them at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/slime.htm.

Our reticulating, fan-shaped slime mold in the Yucatán was in its wandering plasmodium stage. The one on our firewood was in its reproductive stage. What's shown are the aethalia, or fruiting bodies. Wolf's Milk is found nearly worldwide.

The next morning I returned to see how our Wolf's Milk was doing and found in its place what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408so.jpg.

A little Internetting revealed that this was yet a second slime-mold species, probably FULIGO SEPTICA, colorfully known as Dog Vomit, similarly of worldwide distribution. As with the Wolf's Milk, what's shown is the spore-producing fruiting stage, the aethalium.

Did the Dog Vomit eat the Wolf's Milk? It was such a compelling question that I wrote to Tom Volk, the always helpful and idiosyncratically funny mushroom guru at the University of Wisconsin, whose wonderful website is at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/.

Tom wrote back the same day: "It does look like the Fuligo has eaten the Lycogala," and added that "You should have stayed up all night to watch :)."

On the Internet I find other references to slime molds eating one another, so maybe that's what really happened. A couple of days after the above pictures were taken, on a nearby log I found Dog Vomit and Wolf's Milk growing side by side as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120408sp.jpg.

However, they never met, and both happily matured.

*****

PIGNUT TEACHING
It's worth thinking about how the Pignut species expresses itself differently in different places (polymorphism), and the way it intergrades with other species and frequently hybridizes with them. For, it's something the Universal Creative Spirit does, and as such the situation offers itself as a natural pattern or paradigm.

The paradigm is worth paying attention to if we believe, as I do, that when we harmonize our lives with natural patterns our lives resonate with senses of fulfillment, wellbeing, and "happiness." In my own life, trying to identify and harmonize with these patterns is precisely what my spiritual quest is all about.

Pignut taxonomy teaches this: That most entities the mind can grasp do have distinct identities, but also there are robust and beautiful but ambiguous and imprecise things -- things that are neither this nor that. There are things like snapshots of intermediate stages of evolution moving toward undetermined destinies. There are things like existential experiments the Creator conducts that may or may not succeed. In this Universe, on this Earth, in this dimension we humans inhabit, ambiguity and imprecision have their places, their beauties, and their meanings, exactly as does a vibrantly sunlight-charged, fast-photosynthesizing Pignut of undeterminable affinities and classification.

Maybe this is the insight that Zen masters rejoice in.

On a Mississippi spring morning softened with honeysuckle fragrance, charmed with treefrog trillings, birdcalls and wind-rustle in green leaves, on a morning with soft, moist gentleness in the air, this human mind of mine -- this transient node in the evolving network of human minds interconnected and intermingling on an ever-changing physical stage as well as in blossoming cyberspace -- sees the Pignut, stands long regarding the Pignut, loves the Pignut, touches the Pignut and exults that on such an evanescent spring morning this ambiguously defined, electrochemical/electromagnetic mind/body/spirit entity can actually touch imprecise Pignut-essence.

At this exact moment with this exact Pignut, with exactly me, that's the teaching.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim