GREEN THOUGHTS: Spice up Christmas

MY FIRST SPICY CHRISTMAS MEMORY was of sticking cloves in an orange in Sunday school. While I’ve never discovered the significance of that Advent exercise, I do know peppermint candy canes, scented candles and especially the office party punchbowl add zest to the holidays. Our recent batch of spice cookies, featuring cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, was rather lost on me due to my middle-age allergies, but I still find fascinating all the scents and seasonings the plant world provides.

Pumpkin pie, that most Yankee of desserts, would be rather bland without a West Indies native called Pimenta dioica. Just who discovered that the fruits of this tree could be ground and eaten is lost to history, but the English thought the powder tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg and called it allspice. Once traders got their mitts on allspice, it traveled the world over and become a staple flavor in dozens of far-flung cultures. Caribbean cuisine adds it to jerk seasoning, mole sauces and pickling. In the Middle East, it is often found in stews and meat dishes, while in Germany commercial sausage-makers rely on it. The British like it in desserts, while Ohioans claim their Cincinnati chili just isn’t right without it. Interestingly, allspice can also be used as a deodorant: could that be the inspiration behind the Old Spice I used to give my dad? Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter food for wildlife

A ROUGH COUNTY SURVEY of natural food sources for birds and animals shows that so far things look pretty good this year. During tough weather it is surprising what will be eaten. If you have a compost pile you may have witnessed some changes already. Ever wonder what happens to old pumpkins and squash, and the fields of them that are not harvested? If they are left until spring they freeze and get soft on warmer days. Deer bite out chunks and open them up for turkeys and other birds and smaller mammals.

If you pay attention there are incredible numbers of apple trees everywhere. Different varieties stay on trees for different lengths of time, so food is available until spring. Deer will stand on their hind legs and pull off all the apples they can reach and visit trees regularly to eat the ones that eventually fall off. Fox, coyotes and other animals we think of as meat eaters join in too. Coyotes can leap high off the ground to get fruit, and unbelievably, foxes can climb trees. Birds will pick at larger apples but prefer the smaller crab apples.

There are crab apples behind my house. This time of year, the robins, bluebirds and cedar waxwings are already trying them. Some crab apples get sweeter through the winter to spring, when the apples finally develop the sugar content the birds enjoy. Birch trees have seed filled catkins loved by goldfinches, pine siskins, and redpolls. These finches and the sparrows love the weed seeds along roads and in abandoned fields. Often there will be pileated woodpeckers, our largest, crow-sized woodpeckers, wrapped in a tangle of wild grapevine eating the “raisins” with gusto. Read more…

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…