Oriental Bittersweet: November Fruit

When the bright red and gold leaves of the Fall have fallen by the middle of November, there remains another red and gold attraction in Eliza Howell Park: the fruit of the Oriental Bittersweet.

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Though there are still a few remaining honeysuckle berries that the birds have not quite finished, bittersweet can be considered the last fruit of the season. As recently as September, it showed little indication of the starring role it would later play.

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Oriental Bittersweet is a vine that was brought to this country in the 1800s and has now spread widely. There is also a native North American Bittersweet vine, but the ones that I watch in Eliza Howell are the Oriental variety. It grows and spreads rapidly and can climb dozens of feet. The next picture shows the twinning nature of the vine; the following one gives an indication of its ability to climb trees.

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The outer seed covering totally hides the fruit inside until late Fall. Birds are not attracted until the outer shells begin to open, allowing access to the red fruit, usually after the bittersweet leaves have already fallen. 

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The gold shell, which opens in three parts, remains attached for a time (contributing to the attractive red and gold look) and later drops to the ground. The red fruit may hang on well into winter.

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Though Oriental Bittersweet might make for an attractive home decoration at this time of the year, people are rightly advised not to pick and transfer. Unless the seeds are very carefully disposed of, new plants could sprout, spreading the aggressive and hard-to-control vine. It is considered an invasive plant that may damage the environment.

The word “bittersweet” means pleasure accompanied by some negative feelings, sweet with a bitter aftertaste. The pleasure of seeing the red and gold fruit of Oriental Bittersweet can indeed be a bittersweet experience.

 

The River, the Season, the Weather: Tracking Fall 2019

I often stop on the footbridge during my walks in Eliza Howell Park, stop and take a picture, looking upstream the Main branch of the Rouge River. These pictures help me track seasonal changes and fluctuations in water level.

Below are 8 photos taken on different days during the four weeks from October 16 to November 13, 2019. Some from sunny days and some from cloudy days, these pictures presdent the progress of Fall this year.

October 16, 2019  (9:47 a.m.   Approximately 50 degrees F)20191114_172805

October 20, 2019 (3:04 p.m.   Approximately 60 degrees F)20191020_150414

October 24, 2019  (11:23 a.m.  Approximately 50 degrees F)20191024_112318

October 27, 2019   (11:57 a.m.  Approximately 45 degrees F)20191027_115727

November 1, 2019   (9:31 a.m.   Approximately 35 degrees F)20191114_173423

November 4, 2019   (10:22 a.m.   Approximately 45 degrees F)20191104_102257

November 8, 2019   (10:07 a.m.   Approximately 25 degrees F) 20191114_173718

November 13, 2019   (10:52 a.m.   Approximately 15 degrees)20191113_124144

The changes from the middle of October to the middle of November, always dramatic along the river in Eliza Howell Park, were even more dramatic this year because of the unusually heavy snow of November 11.

 

Eastern Bluebird: Becoming a Regular Nesting Species

Earlier this November, I watched several Eastern Bluebirds feeding in Eliza Howell Park, birds that were probably on a brief stopover during their southward migration. This observation started me thinking about my other observations of this species over the last 15 years.

The difference between the female and male Eastern Bluebird can be seen clearly in these two photos by Margaret Weber. The female is shown first here.

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Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline throughout their range last century (especially from about 1920 till about 1970). They are insect eaters and a secondary cavity nesting species. Unable to make their own nesting holes as woodpeckers do, they need to find existing cavities. There were many reasons for the decline, including pesticide use, removal of dead trees, habitat change, etc. In addition, European Starlings, an introduced species that is also a secondary cavity nester, was much more aggressive about claiming tree cavities.

In the last 50 years, however, Bluebirds have gone from being endangered to being a conservation success story. One part of the turnaround has been the widespread use of Bluebird nesting boxes, made with an opening that is large enough for bluebirds but too small for the larger Starlings. Thanks to a birdbox making project of Sidewalk Detroit, there are now a couple such boxes in Eliza Howell Park.

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Fifteen years ago, I did not usually see Bluebirds in the park during the breeding season. Now I have seen them in most of the last 10 breeding seasons and they have probably been nesting here for several years (though I have not been able to make positive confirmation until recently).

The nesting box shown above was placed in the Spring of 2018 and has been used by Bluebirds both last year and this year. They usually have 2 broods per year, typically in the same nest. Note the evidence of the frequent use of the entrance hole.

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In late April this year, while the female was away from the nest, I put my camera in the box and took a quick picture.

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Recently, after nesting was finished for the year, I opened the box to clean it out for them to use again next year. My guess is that they added more nesting material after the first brood.

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The feather confirms the species that used the nest, if there were any doubt.

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Eastern Bluebirds migrate each spring and fall, but do not go very far south. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the winter/year-round range. I occasionally see one or two in the winter in Eliza Howell, but I don’t really expect to see them again until March. (The range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In addition to helping bluebirds find “housing,” nest boxes provide a good opportunity for bird watchers to see these lovely birds. Bluebirds need some open area (ideally something like a field with scattered trees) for their insect hunting. They are not likely to nest in small urban backyards, but Eliza Howell is now one urban location where there is a good chance to watch them in the spring and summer.

The next photo, also by Margaret Weber, taken at a different location, suggests some of the pleasure in Bluebird watching in nesting season.

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Kentucky Coffeetree: Watching Seed Pods

Since August, I have been checking regularly two Kentucky Coffeetrees that grow in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, paying them much more attention than I have in other years. My main interest has been the developing seed pods.

These pictures were taken in August.

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Kentucky Coffeetree is a tree native to, though not very common in, parts of the mid-west. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of its original range. It is now sold by nurseries and used as a landscaping tree. The size and location of the Eliza Howell trees suggest that they were planted here long after the park was established. They are both female trees, producing seeds.

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The seeds (beans) of the tree have been used – roasted – as a food in some Native American cultures and the Meskwaki (Fox) are said to have ground them for use in a hot beverage. Early European colonists also tried it as a “coffee” as well. (Unroasted pods and seeds are reportedly toxic.)

The seeds mature slowly. When the leaves began to turn in October, the pods were darker in color, but remained firmly attached.

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The pods vary in length, most about 4 or 5 inches long, much shorter but thicker than the pods of the Honey Locus tree, often seen on the ground at this time of the year. I placed the two together for comparison.

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Now, in early November, the Coffeetree leaves are down. But the seeds remain firmly on the tree; I have not yet found a single one that has fallen on its own. (I picked those that I have examined.)

This picture was taken this week.

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The pods are not yet as tough as they will get and the seeds, though considerably changed since August, are not yet fully mature.

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I sometimes refer to my visits to Eliza Howell as “doing research.” It sounds more serious than “going for a walk.” One of my current research questions is: “When will the Kentucky Coffeetree seed pods fall?” My hypothesis is that it will not be for at least another month.

It’s an exciting life I lead – watching seeds mature!

 

 

Pokeweed: Another Fall Berry

Pokeweed is a large perennial wildflower that emerges in the spring, but for most of the season is not among my regular stopping places during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. In the Fall, however, it definitely gets my attention.

It is the combination of the red stalks/stems and the bright fruit clusters that calls it to my attention.

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Pokeweed can grow quite tall (the one below is at least 8 feet high) and looks like a bush. The color in the branches and in the flower/seed clusters becomes more bright as the season progresses.

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The flowers are small and, while attractive, do not seem to appear very often among wildflower photos.

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The fruit is the biggest attraction for berry watchers like me. The flower cluster becomes a cluster of berries – green to red-ish to dark purple.

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Pokeweed is a native plant of North America, often found at the edges of tree lines and in disturbed ground. It is spread by seeds. (Range map is from USDA.)

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All parts of the plans (roots, shoots, leaves, fruit) are poisonous, although it has historically been used as a food at times (after very careful preparation) and as a medicine. Many birds and some mammals eat the berries and do not suffer the same ill effects as humans do from eating the raw berries. (Pokeweed often grows in yards and there have been cases of children getting ill after sampling the berries.)

Each berry has about 10 seeds.

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By the end of October, the seed clusters are largely devoid of berries.

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There are many Fall berries in Eliza Howell Park, mostly growing on vines or on shrubs. Pokeweed is not nearly so common here as Bittersweet or Honeysuckle, but it is definitely one worth noting.

 

 

A Sunny Morning in Late October

The early morning sun was shining and there was a combination of dew and frost on the ground when I arrived at Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park on October 28, 2019. Here are a few images from the next three hours.

Bittersweet on Oak Tree

Bittersweet vines grow high on some trees in the park, most noticeable when the leaves of the vine turn yellow.

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Dew Drop on Sumac

In the blow up, one can clearly see the reflections.

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Three Hundred Year Old Bur Oak Tree

I stopped by a massive Bur Oak that has been estimated to be over 300 years old.

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Rouge River from Footbridge

I often take a picture from this spot, looking upstream. The look of the river changes with the season, the sunlight/clouds, and the water level.

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A Walk in the Woods

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Sugar Maple

Several Sugar Maple trees, seen from the park road, have inspired park visitors to pull out their cameras.

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A Favorite Cottonwood

There are some trees, friends, that I stop by to visit to see how they are doing. This Cottonwood tree is one.

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In my records, this is Walk # 1351. Another good one.

 

Bitternut Hickory: Searching for a Better Name

I was standing under a Bitternut Hickory tree the other day in Eliza Howell Park when a falling nut hit me on the head. It wasn’t quite an “aha moment” – as in the story of Newton, the falling apple, and gravity – but it somehow reinforced my intent to find a better name for this tree.

In October, Carya cordiformis, the tree usually known as “Bitternut Hickory,” gets my attention for a stately golden beauty.

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It is not unusual for the common name of a tree species to be based on the appearance or characteristic or use of the tree or its fruit – for example, Shagbark Hickory, Black Cherry, Kentucky Coffee Tree. That seems different, though, from a name that is based on a judgment of the tastiness of the fruit.

Tastes vary, but the name suggest that no one will like the fruit, with the possible result that people will not even pick up a few for their own taste test.

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Deciding that I preferred a name that is more descriptive of the plant and less a commentary on the quality of the nut as food, I began to look for possibilities. The “cordiformis” in the scientific name means “heart shaped.” This refers, I would think, to the shape of the nut. I don’t know if that would be a good common name, but I have not  seen that name used in English.

As a tree and as a fruit, “Bitternut Hickory” is often compared with Shagbark Hickory. The common name Shagbark is, of course, based on the bark. The bark of “Bitternut” is smoother than that Shagbark, but there is little about the bark that suggests a name – and I have not seen any attempts at such naming. In the picture, Shagbark is on the left, “Bitternut” on the right.

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Based on what I have been seeing this month, my personal preference for the name would be something like “Golden Hickory.”

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Unfortunately, this name does not appear in any of the articles or reports on the species.

Another characteristic of the species – and one I often use for identification – is that the husk of the nut has four narrow ridges that extend down from the outer tip.

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“Ridged Hickory” might be acceptable name, but I have not been able to find anyone calling it that.

There are two English names besides “Bitternut” that are sometimes used in the published accounts: “Yellow Bud Hickory” and “Swamp Hickory.” “Swamp” seems to me to more misleading than helpful; the tree is found in many locations that are not swamp.

“Yellow Bud” is based on the fact that the winter bud is yellowish, a distinguishing characteristic. I confess that I have not paid particular attention to this fact and do not have a single picture of the bud. However, the name is based on an identifying characteristic of the species and has been used enough that searching under this name will bring up the right information.

A picture of a Yellow Bud Hickory in Eliza Howell in October:

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I think my search for an alternative name to “Bitternut” may be over. I plan to use “Yellow Bud” from now on. And this winter I will pay attention to the buds.