GREEN THOUGHTS: Wise Men gift green

I’VE LONG MAINTAINED THAT CHRISTMAS is a horticultural holiday. There’s the tree, obviously, and a large supporting cast of plants, including the Poinsettia, mistletoe, cyclamen, holly and ivy, various greens and even the Christmas cactus. Dig even deeper, back to the first Christmas, and we find the Wise Men offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh. While I have a good grasp on the first gift, I’ve always been a little fuzzy on just what the last two are all about.

Both, it turns out, are plant products. Nineteen species of a tree called Boswellia, which grow from the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea and through central Africa, give us frankincense. Its name comes from the Old French moniker “franc encens,” for noble or pure incense. The principle species is Boswellia sacra, a tree growing to about 25 feet tall. No stranger to tough conditions, it lives on dry, rocky hillsides in limestone soils. It has pinnately compound, crinkly leaves, a spreading, vase-shaped form, bark similar to parchment paper and is often multi-trunked. The racemes of white flowers turn into small seed capsules. Frankincense is made by first wounding the tree’s bark, then collecting the gummy sap which exudes from injuries. The palest frankincense is said to be the most desirable. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter sparrows

American tree sparrow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

OUR PREDOMINANT SPARROW OF WINTER is our little American tree sparrow or Spizella arborea, whose genus of birds is often referred to affectionately as “spitzes.” This genus is also called another name that comes from their frustrating similarities as they flit around and defy identification, when birders declare “it is a little brown job” or LBJ. The tree sparrow travels down from the far north of Canada and arrives in our area in late fall about the time our slightly smaller chipping sparrow gathers into flocks of 30-50 birds and departs for the south. It is a changing of the guard for the birds.

Tree Sparrows are small (6.3” long), and the sexes appear alike. Adults differ from other Spizella sparrows by their rusty cap, yellow lower mandible (top one is gray to black), grayish-white underparts showing a dark central breast spot, and a longer wing. Back is streaked with black, buff, and brown; two conspicuous white wing bars are present. Bill is short and conical. Legs are pale brown with blackish feet. Juveniles are like adults but have a streaked brown cap and dusky streaks on breast and sides.

I remember seeing more numerous winter tree sparrows when I was a kid. Back then we had many more active dairy farms with lots of weedy fields, pastures, and hedgerows that provided cover and a source of food for these birds. As I rode my horse through frozen fields around our farms, we would scare up small flocks of 5-10 of these sparrows that called their beautiful jingled notes and tseet calls. Once you learn their signature sound it will be easy to single them out from the other LBJs. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Leafless along the trail

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). Photo contributed

I LIKE BIKES AND I LIKE BOTANY, and the two merge into one great outdoor activity. Identifying plants, seeing what’s in bloom, and silently critiquing home landscapes is fun from a bicycle seat. Now that the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail (AHET) is mostly open, there’s new territory to explore, and I’ve discovered some stands of an old-time favorite, winterberry holly.

To get to know winterberry, or Ilex verticillata, you’ve first got to deal with an apparent conundrum: it’s a deciduous holly, dropping its leaves in fall. While most hollies are prized for their evergreen foliage, winterberry gets naked, but that makes its vibrant orange-red berries stand out all the more. These same strikingly bright fruits also label it a 55 mile per hour plant, since motoring botanists can identify it from a distance without applying the brakes. In summer winterberry goes incognito, its plain green foliage blending with the roadside crowd.

Native to much of the eastern United States, winterberry isn’t abundant locally. Most other hollies require good drainage, so winterberry’s preference for wet feet is another sign that it’s a bit of an odd duck in the Ilex clan. Dampish places of all sorts line the AHET, so it isn’t a surprising find along there, but since it is rather scarce I won’t spill the plant’s exact locations. Winterberry’s penchant for water also means you can use a canoe to see it. Back in 1988, I spent a wonderful weekend in the northern Michigan wetlands, canoeing, camping and cavorting with fellow horticulture graduate students, and the most abundant plant we saw was winterberry. It’s so plentiful there that folks from the Wolverine State sometimes call it Michigan Holly, but you would never hear a New Yorker call it so. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our Christmas wreath

THIS IS THE PROGRESSIVELY DARK and gloomy time of year of cold and shortening days. It is a time to welcome the holidays and many faiths traditions of light as part of the festivities; the torches, lamps, candles and bonfires, and now modern electric lights that help dispel the darkness. There are new lights for my house this year, something my spirit needs. It was in some ancient places an appeal to the sun to return for another year, and it did, as after the winter solstice the days lengthened again.

Many of the celebrations included gathering and decorating with the greens of winter, like mistletoe. which represent life in winter and the hope that spring will return. Our woods had pines, spruce and hemlock trees, and we could find some greens on the ground or under the snow.

My mother’s favorite, particularly for wreaths, was ground pine. On the higher, southeast corner of our woods was an area covered with it. Sometimes there was so much you could tangle your feet in it. It was an exciting and anticipated excursion to go gather it each year, and you had to be old enough to walk the well over half mile to get to it. I felt important to be included. I wore my buckle-up arctic boots, snowsuit, and red mittens with a matching knit hat. Mom picked as sunny a day as possible so that helped. Sometimes we rode to the woods in the horse drawn wagon with my father when he was cutting firewood in that area. These were the pleasant trips with little snow on the ground. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Trying out the trends

I GENERALLY TRY TO BE THE PERSON my dog thinks I am, but today I have to disappoint my canine Magnus and write about cats. Felines, it happens, are the reason for one of the latest gardening trends, the “catio.” Being more of a troglodyte than a trendsetter, I had to look this up, and found that a catio is an enclosed, outdoor room for cats. While we are currently cat-less, I had to learn more.

Catios, it turns out, are available as building plans and kits, and are featured on numerous websites and blogs. They can be small and windowbox-like, with the cats having access via a window, or much larger and taller, with one or more room-like spaces allowing full access for humans. Construction is generally wood framing with wire mesh walls and at least a partial roof to keep out the worst weather. Accessorizing, as usual, is a big part of the fun, and platforms, runways, sacrificial plants, and various toys can be added. Cat parents report that their charges love basking in the sunshine, smelling the alluring breezes and watching wildlife, all from a safe vantage point. Cranky kitties become more mellow and even happy cats think having a little outdoor time is purrfect. Read more…