Wild Cucumber: Next Spring

As I reported in August, this is the first year that I have been watching a Wild Cucumber vine in Eliza Howell Park. One of the fascinating features of this large climbing vine is that it is an annual plant. It has grown some 20 feet over blackberry brambles this year, starting from seed.

As an annual, it will be back in this general location next year only if it successfully produces seed that sprouts here in the spring.

In mid-August, the female flower, with the potential of developing the fruit (the “cucumber”), was ready to be fertilized.

“Self seeding annuals” is a term to describe plants that reliably produce new plants from seed each year on their own. In our home garden, Larspur is a good example of a reliable self-seeding flower.

Thinking about self seeders, I have been focusing on the fruit or seeds of Wild Cucumber.

By mid-September, the fruit was evident, green and near full size, but not yet ripe.

This week I noted that the seeds are ripening. Different plants disperse seeds differently; in the case of Wild Cucumber, the mature fruit / seed pod opens at rhe bottom, so the seeds can drop or spray out.

In this photo, the seed pod on the left is open, while the one on the right remains closed.

There are only a few seeds in each fruit. I found an open one that still held three seeds, providing an opportunity to observe the inside structure of the fruit at maturity.

The seeds are larger than one might expect, nearly a half inch long.

Most of the plants that are found in the park are perennials. Where no one plants new annuals each year, those that reappear year after year need to be very successful at self seeding.

Wild Cucumber has a reputation of being an excellent self seeder, so there is reason to expect that it might be growing here again next year.

Perhaps early June will be a good time to start to look for the growth of next year’s vines.

The other large vines in Eliza Howell are perennials, so I know right where to find them next year. Self seeding annuals, even when successful, are usually near where they were the previous year, but not in the exact same location.

Answers to the questions of whether and where will not be available till next spring.

Artist’s Conk: A Perennial Mushroom

Mushrooms are plentiful in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year and I devote some of my walking time to making note of the varieties present. These photos were taken one recent morning.

Many of the mushrooms are ephemeral; they develop quickly and fade quickly.

There are others, though, especially some that grow on trees and logs, that can be observed repeatedly over a long period of time. Artist’s Conk is one of these.

I recently located a small grouping of Artist’s Conks on a large log in the park woodland. These stemless fungi grow horizontally from a tree or log and are a couple inches to a foot or more across.

They are perennials, remaining in the same spot for years and producing new spores each year. The underside, where the pore-producing spores are located, is white and is the reason this shelf mushroom is so well known.

Marking the fleshy white under surface is easy and whatever is imprinted there becomes permanent when the fungus is dried. Artists have long made use of this and examples of Artist’s Conk artwork can easily be found online.

To demonstrate the ease with which the marking can be done, I picked up a stiff twig and initialed one of the conks. Definitely not a work of art, it shows what is possible.

This particular log is about two feet in diameter, at the base of a large maple tree. The main trunk of the tree, which remains alive, has broken off and it appears that the log is what was formerly the top part of the trunk.

I tend to have a greater attraction to mushrooms that grow on wood, especially on dead trees and logs, than to mushrooms that grow on ground. A major reason for this is, I think, that I can observe the relationship over time: as the wood rots, what happens to the mushrooms; and how the mushrooms contribute to the wood returning to nutrients.

Artist’s Conk can potentially live for decades and this log appears to be near the beginning of the decay process.

This could be a good opportunity to observe a perennial mushroom over time. I expect this maple log and the Artist’s Conk will continue their symbiotic relationship long after my Eliza Howell days are over, but, for now, I am watching and learning.

White-crowned Sparrow: An October Highlight

One of the migrating birds that I look forward to seeing each October in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park is White-crowned Sparrow. So far, I have not been disappointed. In each of the last 17 years it has been one of the species that I have observed in October, pausing here on the way south.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

It is a distinctive bird, with white and black stripes on the gray head and white markings on the dark wings. The breast is unstreaked. Females and males look alike as adults.

At this time of the year, they eat mostly seeds of flowers and grasses. In Eliza Howell, they are usually on the ground or on wildflowers or in the trees nearby.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

White-crowned Sparrows breed in the far north and winter to the south of Michigan. They pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in May, but they do not linger much. I have spotted them in May in 10 of 17 years.

In the fall, they do not seem to be in as much of a hurry. I see them some times in late September (5 of 17 years) and in early November (4 of 16 years). The October appearances can be at any time of the month

(The range map is from the Cornell Institute of Ornithology.)

When they show up in the fall, adult White-crowned Sparrows are accompanied by immature birds, this year’s hatchlings. The immatures are adult size, but have tan and brown head stripes instead of white and black. They keep this look until spring.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

October is the best time of the year to see a variety of sparrows in Detroit. I often see 10 different species during the month in the park — some summer residents that have not yet departed, some migrating through, and some winter residents just arriving.

Sparrow species are notorious for being difficult to distinguish. Once they become acquainted with the White-crowned Sparrow, however, most people find it (at least the adult) quite easy to recognize.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

There remain some October days and I am hopeful of getting a few more looks at a favorite migrating sparrow before saying farewell till next spring.

Moonseed: Another September Fruiting Vine

Three years ago I wrote about watching the fruit develop on five different kinds of climbing vines in Eliza Howell Park. Since then I have added to the number of perennial fruiting vines that I check during my September walks. There are now eight, some more easily located than others.

Though the berries do not all ripen at the same time, September is a good time for taking pictures to show and compare the different fruit.

From top left clockwise: Oriental Bittersweet, Winter Creeper, Grape, and Virginia Creeper. Three of these — Grape, Bittersweet, and Virginia Creeper — were included in the post about “Five Climbing Vines” in September, 2018, and Winter Creeper was featured a few months later.

From top left clockwise: Greenbrier, Moonseed, Porcelain Berry, and Poison Ivy. I have written about Poison Ivy and Porcelain Berry before, but Greenbrier is a vine that I have been watching in the park for only a couple years now. And Moonseed is the latest addition to my vine stops on September walks.

Moonseed is a vine native to eastern North America that climbs 10 to 20 feet up trees, climbing by twining around small trunks/stems/limbs.

The fruit looks a lot like wild grape (compare above in the collages) and the leaves are somewhat similar, but it is possible to tell the difference clearly by looking at details.

One big reason for learning to recognize Moonseed is that the berries are poisonous. This is a fruit that is not for eating.

If the appearance doesn’t quickly identify Moonseed, note the climbing method (it twines around a limb as shown above). Grape vines climb by the use of tendrils that grab or hook onto the limb they climb on.

Moonseed is named for the shape of the seed. The one seed per berry is crescent shaped. This is very different from grapes and other similar looking fruit.

The Eliza Howell Moonseed vines that I am familiar with are near the riverbank. The plant is not considere rare in Michigan, but, for a climbing vine, it can be quite inconspicuous. Of course, as often seems to happen, an observer begins to see more and more of them once they are known.

I have come to recognize them by the leaves.

As I often experience, there is something more to learn every day. Since I started planning this post. I have been studying another climbing vine, one with ripening seeds that don’t look like berries — Climbing Buckwheat.

I may want to discuss the Climbing Buckwheat vine at another time. For now, thogh, it is enough to introduce Moonseed to those who have never met it.

Sulphur Shelf (Chicken of the Woods): An Unmistakable Mushroom

In my Eliza Howell Park walks during the past week, I have several times spotted, from a distance, brightly-colored mushrooms on trees or logs. It can often be very difficult to identify mushrooms, but these I recognized immediately.

The mushroom is called different common names — “Sulphur Shelf,” “Chicken of the Woods,” “Chicken Mushroom” — but, whatever name is used, it is quite unmistakable, not easy to confuse with other kinds of mushrooms.

A “Wow!” was my reaction when I saw this on a gray drizzly morning.

Sulphur Shelf is a large mushroom. The cluster at the base of this Black Cherry tree is about 12 inches across. The colors are often described as “orange and yellow,” but they vary quite a bit and the light can make a difference, even on cloudy days.

Note two different views of the above tree.

The first Sulphur Shelf I found this year, about a week ago, was on a stump.

Another cluster, two days ago, was on a log in the shady woods.

The “Sulphur” name comes from the color of the pores (underside).

Sulphur Shelf is an edible fungus, often considered one of a mushroom hunter’s favorites. The “Chicken” name comes from the way it tastes cooked, at least according to some.

The first one I found (third picture from top) was in a very visible location and I was not surprised to see that two days later it has been harvested / sliced off.

It appears first as a yellow knob and grows very fast, brightest when fresh and young. In a few days it begins to “age” to more of a white color. The changes seen in this picture (clockwise, starting from top left) took place over about six days.

Sulphur Shelf can be found on both dead wood and on living trees. From my limited observations, the living trees on which they are found appear to have a significant degree of rot.

When growing on a tree or stump that has bark, they often emerge at a wound sight.

The mushroom guides indicate that Sulphur Shelf can be found about six months of the year (May to November), but I think of them as a September mushroom. I saw none this year before the middle of September and have found several since.

I do not know why I am seeing it more often than in previous Septembers in the park, but I am enjoying the opportunity to get to know this fascinating mushroom better.

And I welcome its contribution to fall color.

How Butterflies Spend the Winter

This has been another good butterfly year in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, but now, in the middle of September, butterfly season is winding down. In a few weeks I won’t be seeing any here until spring next year.

Different butterflies have developed different methods of coping with cold winters they are not able to survive as active insects.The park species pass the winter (“overwinter” is the verb often used) in five different ways.

1.Some species migrate.

Most people are familiar with Monarch butterflies and are aware that they are long-distance migrants. The Monarchs that summer in this area overwinter as adults in Mexico.

Migration is not very common among butterfly species; only a few of the regular park species head south for the winter.

Red Admiral is an additional one that does.

The butterfly life cycle, described as “complete metamorphosis,” has four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. Some species overwinter in each of these stages.

2.Some species overwinter as hibernating adults.

Mourning Cloaks spend the winter in loose bark or logs or some similar location. They are among the very first butterflies of the year, appearing on warm spring days, often in late March.

Another early flyer each spring is Eastern Comma, also a hibernator.

3.Some species overwinter in the chrysalis stage.

This group includes a larger number than either migrants or hibernators. When the last generation of the year dies in the fall, there are no more adults until the following spring. In these species, this new generation will have spent a very long time inside before emerging from the chrysalis.

Both Black Swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail overwinter in the chrysalis stage.

A common butterfly of gardens and parks in this geographic area, Cabbage White, is another example of a butterfly using this winter survival strategy.

4.Some species overwinter as caterpillars.

Probably more of Eliza Howell butterflies fit into this group than any of the others. Caterpillars “pause” their development for months (caterpillar hibernation?) before resuming their eating and growth in the spring.

Examples include some of my favorite species:

Red-spotted Purple

Silver-spotted Skipper

And Great Spangled Frittilary

5.Some species overwinter in the egg stage.

This does not seem to be a widespread practice. The pause in development here takes place even before the egg hatches. My example is Banded Hairstreak, not a butterfly that visitors to the park see frequently.

My collection of photos from this summer reflects my attraction to the butterflies of Eliza Howell Park. Knowing something about their diverse methods of living through the freezes of winter makes them even more fascinating when the weather warms again.

Ladies’ Tresses, Beech Nut, and More: A September Morning

On a recent morning walk in Eliza Howell Park, I documented in photos some of what I am observing at this time of the year.

Here are twelve images of late Summer / early Fall in the park, all photos taken on September 10, 2021.

1.Dew-covered Spider Web

If one walks toward the sun in a flower field early on a dewy morning at this time of the year, there is a good chance to see the details of spider webs clearly. Orb webs are a favorite.

2.Green Darner Dragonfly

This is one of the dragonflies that migrate and, because it is now migration time, they are more common here now. They are usually in flight (they feed on the wing), but this one was at rest.

3.Poison Ivy Foliage

The earliest Fall red leaves found on trees are not tree leaves, but the leaves on tree-climbing vines.

4.Beech Nuts

The nuts of the American Bee trees are ripening now and beginning to fall.

5.Milkweed Bug on Seed Pod

I often stop in patches of Common Milkweed at this time of the year to observe insects, especially the Large Milkweed Bugs that feed on the seeds.

6.Praying Mantis on Goldenrod

Praying Mantises, not noticeable for most of the summer, are now easy to find as they wait to snag insects that visit flowers.

7.New England Aster

Though not quite as evident and widespread as goldenrods, asters are common September flowers. New England Aster is perhaps the most striking of the asters here. This picture was taken in the shade; the flower appears a little different color in the sunshine.

8.Bald-faced Hornet Nest

I typically locate 8 or more hornet nests in park trees each year in the Fall, starting in early September. This is the first one this year, in a maple tree.

9.Staghorn Sumac Seed Cluster

A common stop in my walks is at sumac trees/shrubs, to admire the persistent seed clusters. They remain bright and attractive for many weeks.

10.Ladies’ Tresses

Single-stemmed, short, and scattered in fields, Ladies’ Tresses are easily missed when they bloom in late Summer and early Fall.

11.Pokeweed Berries

Pokeweed can grow 6 feet or more..The pink/red stems and the dark berries that begin to ripen in September are perhaps its most striking feature.

12.Monarch on Red Clover

Monarch butterflies have been common in Eliza Howell all summer, but the noteworthy point about seeing them now is that this is migrating time. Looking at this individual nectaring, I am thinking of its over 2000 miles flight to Mexico — on the lovely but delicate wings.

When I was thinking about referring to this collection of photos as “September Morning,” the phrase seemed familiar. It took a few minutes to remember the “September Morn” song by Neil Diamond, remembering an earlier occasion.

Nature’s calendar is such that all or most of the above observations are possible year after year in Eliza Howell Park. September Mornings are very similar one year to the next.

But nature’s calendar also means that things are constantly changing. October mornings will not be the same

Shagbark Hickory Nuts

Among the different trees that I visit regularly each year in Eliza Howell Park is one Shagbark Hickory tree. It is a tall tree with some low branches providing opportunity for close observation.

It is located in a mostly open area, with scattered trees, within the road loop. In this photo, the Shagbark Hickory is the tree in the center, on the right side of an oak.

Shagbark Hickory trees produce many more nuts some years than others. After a couple of less productive years, this particuler tree has an abundance of nuts in 2021. They are not yet ripe, but they have reached full size and a few have begun to fall.

Shagbark is not the most common species of hickory growing in Eliza Howell, but it is my favorite. It has large nuts that have long been prized by humans as well as consumed by many other animals. Yellow-bud Hickory is more common in the park, but its other name (“Bitternut”) suggests the judgment many make about its taste. Shagbark, on the other hand, is often described as having a sweet taste. It was my choice in a little taste test I did a couple years ago.

Recently I picked up a couple green Shagbark nuts from the ground under the tree and placed them next to Yellow-buds.The difference in size is dramatic.

Hickory nuts have an outer hull covering the shell, a hull that in the case of Shagbark is quite thick. So the nuts are not quite as large as they first appear.

When the nuts ripen and fall, or when the green nuts dry, the hull opens easily (separating into 4 parts) to reveal the nut inside.

The shell then needs to be cracked open for access to the nut meat.

Shagbark nut hulls slowly change from green to brown and the nuts can be harvested when they fall from the tree, at about the time of the first frost. “Picking” them means picking them up.

“Shagbark” Hickory got its name from the peeling strips of bark on the trunk, a characteristic that is very useful In identifying the tree when there are no nuts visible.

The leaves are not as distinctive, but are recognizable. The 5 to 7 leaflets on a stem are slightly rounded and come to a point.

Shagbark Hickory is native and grows wild in much of the Eastern part of the U.S. (The range map is from the U.S. Geological Survey.)

I often get asked by park visitors whether something is edible — usually berries, mushrooms, or nuts. The frequency of the question seems to indicate some interest in foragong, in finding food in what gows wild, as our ancestors did.

Those serious about eating some wild food might want to consider Shagbark Hickory nuts.

Watching Yellow Garden Spiders Trap Prey

In the last couple weeks, I located two different Yellow Garden Spiders in their webs during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. (They are sometimes called Black and Yellow Garden Spiders.) The large orb web is made by the female, who can usually be found in the center, in a head down position. She is more visible on the “back side” of the web (as in this picture) than on the side that faces the open area from which flying insects are more likely to come.

The web is large, about 2 feeet high and nearly as far across, and is placed across a small opening between plants, quite close to the ground. It has a very visible zigzag shaped section of thick silk in the center, over 6 inches long vertically, called a stabilimentum. Yellow Garden Spiders are among the largest web making spiders in our area.

The details of web construction are fascinating and parts of the web are rebuilt every night, (but the web remains in the same location). The Yellow Garden Spider is usually in her spot in the morning, on a clean web. partly hidden behind the stabilimentum, whenever I check.

She goes into action as soon as something becomes ensnared in the web. I arrived recently just as she grabbed a moth that had gotten caught. She quickly killed the prey, injecting a venum. Then, in a matter of seconds, she wrapped it in a cocoon of silk, to be moved away and later consumed.

I didn’t stay long enough to confirm, but it looked to me like this time she was starting to eat the moth as soon as she returned to her waiting spot on the web.

Not all spiders use webs to catch prey, but the Yellow Garden Spider is one that does and their webs are most easily found now, in late summer and early fall.

I am looking forward to a sunny morning with heavy dew because the webs stand out most, in all their intricacy and beauty, when each strand of silk is dew covered.

By the first frost, the Yellow Garden Spiders will probably be gone, with the new generation emerging in the spring.The next month is the best time to find their webs and observe their hunting technique. Here she just caught a fly.

Oak Bullet Galls: Protected by Hornets?

During my recent walks in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, I have been observing what strikes me as a fascinating phenomenon. On two different Swamp White Oak trees, there are many small round insect galls that are being regularly visited by Bald-faced Hornets.

The galls are known as Oak Bullet Galls and they encase the developing larvae of very small wasps. The types of cynipid wasps that produce them on the twigs and stems of Swamp White Oak and Bur Oak trees are best known for these galls.

Inducing plants to grow in a manner that provides space and food for larval deveopment, as insect gall makers do, is amazing enough. What these Oak Bullet Gall wasps do in addition is to have the galls exude drops of nectar.

Bald-faced Hornets seek nectar at this time of the year and they return repeatedly to these galls seeking the latest drop.

What a wonderful strategy for protecting the galls from predators that might try to get to the larvae — have the galls patrolled by large (stinging) wasps that don’t want anything happening to their food source!

Bald-faced Hornets are the most common of the large wasps that seek out gall nectar. There are a variety of others, three of which are shown here.

I stopped by the trees last week to check out the size and number of the acorns. It’s a good acorn year, but an even better bullet gall year. The buzzing of the hornets quickly pulled my attention away from acorns, and I have been returning frequently since to watch and try to photograph the insects

Nature study tends to reinforce my sense of wonder. What is happening with Oak Bullet Galls is pretty incredible.