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JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Special on-the-road edition issued from
Calhoun, Kentucky, USA

April 19, 2015

WILD CANADA GEESE
When I was a kid, seeing big Vs of migrating Canada Geese flying overhead was exciting. People would run into the house to tell others about it, and everyone would go outside to see them, and listen to the honking. Now when I Google the keywords "Canada Geese Kentucky," the first page to turn up is entitled "Canada Goose Control."

In other words, nowadays it's no big deal to see Canada Geese. In fact, many regard them as pests, for Canada Geese, BRANTA CANADENSIS, are adaptable birds, and over the years they've adapted their behavior to take advantage of human changes in the environment. Now they're commonly found in city parks, golf courses, suburban lawns and such places, often produce messes with their poop, are not above defending their spaces with hisses and pecks, and often don't migrate.

But, as with humans, there are still individuals and isolated populations of Canada Geese sticking to the old ways, and they are as wild and natural as ever. I think I saw a couple of such birds this week in a flooded soybean field in the bottomlands along our western Kentucky Green River. They're shown warily watching me from a good distance at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419cg.jpg

Over the years, not only has Canada Goose behavior changed, but also our concepts of what a Canada Goose is. Currently about seven Canada Goose subspecies are recognized. Earlier four subspecies of exceptionally small geese also were thought of as Canada Geese, but now they're regarded as Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii. The geese in our picture are too large, and their beaks are proportionally too big, to be Cackling Geese. Canada Geese also have established themselves on other continents and can be expected to be adapting to those new environments, too.

Whatever Canada Geese are doing in the rest of the world, and in suburbs and parks beyond our local fields and swamps, I was glad to see the birds in our picture, and I'm glad that they showed every sign of not trusting me, and of being ready to escape if I came an inch closer.

*****

SILVER MAPLES FRUITING
Back in the 1950s my Grandpa Conrad taught me the name of a big tree growing over his back porch, one whose thick roots buckled up the concrete sidewalk leading to the smokehouse. The tree was a Water Maple, he'd said, and I didn't doubt that he knew the name because a teacher at school had said that Grandpa Conrad probably knew his trees better than anybody in McLean County, Kentucky.

So, I was surprised years later when I purchased my first field guide to the trees of North America and found that no Water Maple was listed. According to the book, the tree overarching Grandpa's house was the Silver Maple, ACER SACCHARINUM. That was my introduction to the fact that common names change from place to place. Other names Grandpa's tree has been known as include Creek Maple, Soft Maple, Swamp Maple, White Maple and Silverleaf Maple.

Whatever the good old tree's name, nowadays in super-green western Kentucky it's a busy time for the species because not only is it contributing to the general greenness by issuing delicate-looking, new leaves from the tips of slender branches, but also it's heavy with great gobs of green, samara-type fruits -- samaras being one-seeded, winged fruits that don't split open when mature. You can see what this green-on-green situation looks like on a tree in a swamp along the Green River at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419sv.jpg

A close-up of a couple of that tree's expanding leaves is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419sw.jpg

Even those young leaves show features distinguishing them from leaves of our other maple species found here: The sinuses between the leaves' major lobes are sharp-bottomed or V-shaped, not rounded or U-shaped like the Sugar Maple's, plus the major lobes are longish, not like the Red Maple's stubbier lobes. A close-up of a healthy cluster of Silver Maple samaras is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419sx.jpg

Just by looking at some of the Silver Maple's various common names -- Water Maple, Creek Maple, Swamp Maple -- you can guess that the Silver Maple likes wetlands. It's very common in these parts in deep swamps and along rivers.

Out in the swamps, Silver Maples are well used by wildlife. During late winter and early spring their large, rounded buds are nibbled on by squirrels, the samaras are eaten by squirrels and birds, the bark is gnawed on by beaver and deer, plus the tree's trunks tend to produce cavities, which can shelter squirrels, raccoons, opossums, owls and woodpeckers.

Silver Maples are distributed throughout the forested areas of eastern North America, except for parts of the US Deep South, including most of Florida and Louisiana.

*****

RED MAPLES FRUITING
Along with the Silver Maples, Red Maples also are fruiting, and in our area both species are very common. It can be fun to notice the differences between them because at first glance they look a lot alike. You might enjoy comparing our above picture of a fruiting Silver Maple with that of a fruiting Red Maple, ACER RUBRUM, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419rm.jpg

In the above picture, notice that the papery wings of the Red Maple's samaras are narrower than those of the Silver Maple. Also, the Red Maple's leaves are much less deeply lobed than those of Silver Maples. Sometimes the Red Maple's stems and samara-type fruits are so vibrantly red colored that there's no doubt that you have a Red Maple, but most of our wild trees aren't that red.

In our bottomland area of rural western Kentucky, probably Red Maples are the most abundant of all tree species. In the fall, Red Maple leaves turn brilliantly scarlet, and it's a wonderful thing to see them in bright October sunlight beneath a deep blue sky. Happily. the species grows on many soil types and in various habitats all through North America's eastern forest zone.

Red Maples are such handsome trees that numerous cultivars have been developed from the wild stock, mostly in attempts to intensify the red color. 'October Glory' and 'Red Sunset' are among the most popular cultivars. Toward the species' southern limit, 'Fireburst', 'Florida Flame', and 'Gulf Ember' are preferred.

Red Maples can also be tapped for the production of maple syrup. However, once Red Maple buds expand, the flavor of their syrup becomes undesirable, and that doesn't happen with Sugar Maples. This means that Red Maples provide a shorter season for syrup production than Sugar Maples, so Red Maples seldom are tapped.

*****

SPRING BEAUTIES
Years ago at this time of year the little park in front of my aunt's house where I'm staying in western Kentucky could be white with fingernail-size blossoms of the little wildflower called Spring Beauty, CLAYTONIA VIRGINICA. Nowadays frequent and early mowing has left only a few Spring Beauties, especially up against the trunks of trees, such as they ones shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419sb.jpg

In that picture you can see that the flowers are mainly white, but they have a pinkish tinge, and the petals bear slender, pink veins. The pollen-bearing anthers are pink, too. A closer look at blossom is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419sc.jpg

Despite the hard time Spring Beauties are having with lawn mowers in the park across the street, they're still easy to find in many lawns, city parks, forests, roadsides, in wetlands, on bluffs, and in ravines. It's a resilient species, being a perennial that sprouts from underground corms. Corms are short, vertical, swollen, modified plant stems that serve as plant storage organs. Still, if any plant's leaves and stems are mowed down again and again, year after year, eventually it has to give up, as have our Spring Beauties in the park.

The Spring Beauty's corms are edible, striking some folks as like tiny potatoes, and sometimes are referred to as Fairy Spuds. In the classic book dealing with edible wild plants Stalking The Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons wrote that he ate Spring Beauty corms"... fried, mashed, in salads, and cooked with peas, like new potatoes." He preferred them boiled. The corms' skin are tough so their edibility is improved by being peeled, though that's not absolutely necessary. Spring Beauty's leaves, stems and flowers also can be cooked as greens. However, one problem with eating Spring Beauties is that they're so small. To really satisfy your hunger, you'd need to eat a lot of them, and it'd take a long time to peel all the corms, so it's just better to leave them alone.

Spring Beautifies are common throughout most of the forested zone of Eastern North America.

*****

REDBUDS AT THEIR FLOWERING PEAK
My week-long visit with my aunt in western Kentucky happily coincides with the absolute peak of flowering of the Eastern Redbud. All through town, as leaves unfurl from buds on trees and dandelions adorn dazzlingly green lawns, the Redbuds add grace and loveliness everywhere. Redbuds are native trees here, often found in local woods, so most, if not nearly all, of the town's Redbuds have been transplanted from the woods. You can see a typical, Redbud-enhanced view of a usually uninspiring street near my aunt's house at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419rb.jpg

Most people seldom look closely at Redbud flowers, but those are worthy of admiration, too. You can see flower clusters soon to fall away as freshly emerged leaves are fast expanding at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419rc.jpg

Up closer still, individual Redbud blossoms reveal themselves as "papilionaceous" flowers typical of the Bean Family. A normal papilionaceous blossom bears five petals. The topmost petal -- often called the "standard" -- usually is the largest, then there are two "wings," or side petals, and then the two lowest petals are fused along their common side, forming a scoop-shaped "keel" inside which are held ten stamens with their filaments united into a cylinder surrounding the future legume. You can see the Redbud's papilionaceous flower -- and notice that it departs a little from the papilionaceous blossom's standard formula -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419rd.jpg

Here's what's unusual about the Redbud's papilionaceous flower: It seems to lack the topmost petal, the standard, and normally that's the largest and most conspicuous of the five petals. Actually, the Redbud flower's standard is present, but it's very small and held beneath the other petals, and it isn't visible in our picture. Redbud flowers also are somewhat unusual for being bean flowers because they're so brightly pink colored, though you might remember that during our travels we've run into red-flowered bean vines.

I'll always remember this visit with family in Kentucky as "the visit of the Redbud's blossoming," and I can think of no more appealing association than that.

*****

FIELD PANSIES
Along weedy roadsides in our area, one of the most common wildflowers blooming nowadays is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419vi.jpg

Notice that the flowers are "bilaterally symmetrical," meaning that there's only one way the corolla can be cut down the middle so that each half is a mirror image of the other. In the above picture you can most easily visualize where the bilateral cut would be on the corolla at the lower right. A close-up of one of the plant's flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419vk.jpg

There you can see how nicely this blossom is adapted for pollinators. A small bee species can land on the expanded lower lip. The lip is marked with dark lines called "nectar guides" leading into the flower's throat, and the throat is yellow, highlighting it as a destination.

An important field mark for this species is that at the base of its slender leaves there appear deeply lobed, ear-like modified leaves known as stipules, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419vl.jpg.

This is the Field Pansy, also called Wild Pansy or Johnny Jump-up. It's VIOLA BICOLOR, distributed in weedy areas throughout North America, though less common or missing in much of the drier western states.

When I was a kid my father taught me to call Wild Pansies "Rooster Fighters," and you can see the feature that in our culture made them "fighters" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419vj.jpg

Notice how the flower stem, or peduncle, curves at its top, with one side of the flower's calyx filling most of the space inside the curve. My father taught me how to hook two Field Pansy flowering heads together so that the crook of one peduncle fit into the crook of the other. Then the peduncles would be quickly jerked apart, resulting in the weaker peduncle losing its flower. The person holding the peduncle that still bore a flower was the winner, and that was a rooster fight.

All violet species can be used raw in salads or cooked like spinach. Their flowers can be eaten raw, or candied, and their dried leaves can be used for making tea. Violets can also be added to soups as a thickener.

*****

WILD YAM FRUIT CAPSULES
During these super-green days, at woods edges, often you see arm-long clusters of dried-up, papery fruiting capsules on dried-up, herbaceous, viney stems, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419ym.jpg

The capsules are neatly three-winged, and when they're mature they open at their bottoms and seeds fall out, normally six or so in number. You can see a split-open capsule at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419yn.jpg

This vine is one of several species usually called Wild Yam, also Yam Root, Winged Yam, Colic Root and other such names. It's DIOSCOREA VILLOSA, a member of what's often referred to as the Yam Family, the Dioscoreaceae. That's a monocot family, meaning that it's more closely related to grasses and lilies than to plants like morning glories and maples. This can be a little surprising, since the vine's leaves, when present, are broad and heart-shaped, with veins that aren't parallel with one another, like those of grasses.

With "yam" in its name, you might expect that the vine arises from edible underground parts. That's true, for its tuber-like rhizomes -- rhizomes being horizontal underground stems -- are indeed edible, at least when cooked. However, years ago when I followed some Wild Yam stems to the ground and dug up the rhizomes, I found them to be so small and hard that making a meal of them was out of the question. I read that under cultivation the vine's yams can grow fairly large -- even very large. But wild Wild Yam "yams" found at woods' edges in our western Kentucky bottomlands definitely aren't big ones.

Another name used for Wild Yam is Colic Root, for traditionally the vine was highly regarded as medicinal. The rhizomes contain the compound diosgenin, which is used to manufacture certain steroid drugs such as progesterone, used as contraceptives and against such diseases as asthma and arthritis.

*****

MOUSE-EAR CHICKWEED
Nowadays roadsides and certain lawns are prettily white-speckly with tiny, white blossoms of the Common Chickweed, illustrated and described at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/chickwee.htm.

If those same roadsides and lawns are a little wilder than usual, you might see a little herb that looks very much like Common Chickweed, except that it's larger, including its flowers. You can see this larger plant, with a tangle of smaller Common Chickweeds in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419cw.jpg.

Like the Common Chickweed's flowers, these larger blossoms bear petals that are deeply notched at their tips, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419cy.jpg

However, the capsular fruits of Common Chickweed are shaped like long eggs -- they're ovoid-oblong -- while this plant's capsules are cylindrical. You can see one of this plant's old, cylindrical capsules that has split open at its tip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419cx.jpg

This larger roadside herb belongs to the same family as the Common Chickweed, which is the Pink or Carnation Family, the Caryophyllaceae, but its cylindrical capsule is one feature that puts it into a different genus, the genus Cerastium.

But, the Flora of North America treats 27 Cerastium species, so which is this?

The plant's being an annual instead of a perennial, its flower's five styles, and the dense covering of long, often gland-tipped hairs on its body are among features making this the Sticky Mouse-ear Chickweed, CERASTIUM GLOMERATUM. Sticky Mouse-ear Chickweeds are Eurasian in origin but now they're found along roads, in fields and on abandoned land throughout North America, except the north-central parts.

You can imagine that small, ground-hopping, seed-eating birds might peck at  tiny seeds that tumble from the cylindrical fruit pod. B.E. Reid's Famine Foods of the Chiu-Huang Pen-ts'ao reports that Sticky Mouse-ear Chickweed's leaves and stems are edible, though the plants are so tough and stringy that I can't imagine their being eaten by anyone not terribly hungry. N.P. Manandhar's Plants and People of Nepal reports that juice of the plant can be applied to the forehead to relieve headaches, and that the juice dropped into a nostril can treat a nosebleed.

*****

CRAWDAD MUD CHIMNEYS
The farm I grew up on here in western Kentucky was created from deforested, drained swampland. Back in the 1950s, our frequently flooded fields often were covered with untold numbers of half-foot-tall "mud chimneys" such as the one found this week next to a drainage ditch along Green River road, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150419cf.jpg

As a kid, these chimneys fascinated me. Moreover, in the drainage ditch in front of our house, you could always find the creatures known to build them, which we called crawdads. Years later I learned that city people might call them crayfish, mudbugs or other names. Crawdads are smallish, lobster-like, freshwater crustaceans, and  about 52 species are listed for Kentucky. I don't know which species built the chimney in the picture.

Nowadays this area's broad, flat, muddy bottomland fields are mostly empty of crawdads and their chimneys. Only an occasional chimney turns up at field edges and in drainage ditches. I assume that the heavy use of pesticides in these fields is responsible for the crawdad population collapse. That may also explain why nowadays I'm not seeing or hearing Horned Larks and Eastern Meadowlarks, which used to be abundant in these same fields. When I dig into the fields' mud, even earthworms are missing, or not nearly as common as they used to be.

If you never experienced these creatures in the bottomlands along Kentucky's Green River, you won't miss them. But, I miss them.

Moreover, I suspect that their absence speaks to the sad stories I'm overhearing here about babies being born prematurely and with afflictions of various kinds, of young people with allergies and mental and emotional problems that we used to seldom hear about, and of old folks with diseases that during my childhood were little known. I think there may be a connection between these human ailments and the pesticide-caused disappearance of crawdads, Horned Larks and Eastern Meadowlarks from our fields.

One reason I'm thinking like this is that in the Yucatan, where they don't use expensive chemicals nearly as prodigiously as here, it seems to me that people's mix of ailments more match the mix we experienced here in rural western Kentucky when I was a kid, than they do what's going on here now. Young people in the Yucatan certainly can have allergies, be autistic, or be born with some kind of other affliction, but my impression is that those particular ailments aren't as frequent there as they are here. Diabetes and heart problems are indeed as common, because Yucatac folks tend to be as fat as rural western Kentuckians.

It's a good guess that here people are suffering from the chemicals they drench their landscape with -- not  only the agricultural herbicides and insecticides responsible for missing crawdads, Horned Larks and Meadowlarks, but also lawn pesticides, the herbicides used to keep weeds and bushes down along roads and from beneath power lines, and the foggings that airplanes douse the area with several times each season, to keep the mosquitoes down.

I doubt that anything will change, though, because it's hard to get people to grasp the implications of the fact that human bodies are, among other things, big, semipermeable bags of interacting chemicals and minerals. And that continually introducing into those bags synthetic compounds and their breakdown products -- especially compounds designed to kill other living things whose bodies share many basic biochemical pathways with human bodies -- may not be a good idea.

*****

MOVING ON
Monday I'll be leaving Calhoun. Probably you'll read about my traveling experiences in the next Newsletter, which may be posted a little later than usual.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.