Mulberries: Winter Observation, Summer Picking

During a recent winter walk in Eliza Howell Park, I stopped by some of the clusters of Mulberry trees that I visit in late June and early July, picking container in hand. Winter provides a good opportunity to note where and how they grow.

In Eliza Howell, almost all the Mulberry trees are found at the base of large trees that grow within the road loop. How close these trees grow to one another and to the larger tree is most evident in the winter when the leaves are off the branches.

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I thought of the nursery rhyme (“All around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel”) when I noted how completely mulberry trees surround the trunk of one cottonwood tree. If I were more clever or creative, I might try to complete a line that begins with “all around the cottonwood tree….”

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Many mulberries are about 20 feet tall and, in their position under the taller trees, their branches spread and hang quite low. A lot of berries can be reached while standing on the ground. They progress from white to red to black, at which point they are ripe and ready.

Birds like mulberries, as do bird watchers.

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A comment I have heard from individuals who have come upon mulberries for the first time is “they look like blackberries.” They do have a similar shape, but they grow on trees (blackberries grow on vines), and the fruit stems are very different. The taste is also different, of course, but that is best experienced by eating newly picked berries.

There are three different black-colored edible summer berries in Eliza Howell Park: Mulberry, Black Raspberry, Blackberry (in the order in which they ripen). Black raspberry also grows on vines.

In this collage, Mulberry is on the left, Blackberry is top right, and Black Raspberry is bottom right.

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In my opinion, these three berries are the best foods to be harvested in Eliza Howell Park.

The first mulberry picking is at least 5 months away, but it is not too early to review the number and location of the trees. They may look to some like unwanted shrubs growing under larger trees, but they are worth getting to know.

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Winter is also a good time to enjoy one of the results of summer picking. 

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Jam made by Margaret Weber

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.

 

 

Porcelain Berry: Two Introductions

Before I began my nature study in Eliza Howell Park, I did not know Porcelain berry at all (it is sometimes called Amur peppervine). In the last few years, I find myself giving it more and more attention. Since many visitors to the park are not yet familiar with it, this might be is a good time for an introduction – rather, two introductions.

1.Porcelain berry is an ornamental vine with multicolored berries in September and October.

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Porcelain berry is a native of East Asia that was first brought to this country about 150 years ago as a landscape ornamental. It has escaped gardens and has now become established in a variety of places in the eastern part of the United States, slowly spreading west. It is apparently not yet widespread in Michigan.

This year the berry crop in Eliza Howell is heavy, with many opportunities to find scenes like this.

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The berries ripen to speckled blue, pink, purple, green, and other colors.

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Birds are attracted to the berries, especially when they are as abundant as they are this year. Robins, primarily fruit eaters in the fall, have already started on them.

Humans also find the berries edible, though the 2 – 4 seeds in each berry do not leave much room for pulp.

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2.Porcelain berry is a rapidly growing vine that covers shrubs and small trees.

The eye-catching nature of the berries is not the only way in which I want to introduce this vine. Especially when I am walking with individuals with an interest in habitat and plant variety, I want to point out how it can overtake and shade out other vegetation.

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The vines are very thick and spread rapidly; they can grow up trees 20 feet or more.

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Since I started observing a few patches in the park about a decade ago, it has spread to many other locations. It grows easily from seed. I now see it under many of the larger trees scattered within the road loop, probably started from seeds that passed through the birds that ate the fruit and then perched in the trees.

After a number of years, this is what can happen.

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Meet Porcelain berry: it is an ornamental distinguished by multicolored fruit; it forms thick mats that shade out other plants.

I will continue to observe and seek to know it better. I invite others to do the same.

Green in December: Winter Creeper

While I normally use the common name, rather than the scientific name, of the plants I observe in Eliza Howell Park, I have for some reason long thought of this plant as “euonymus” and have only this year begun to call it “winter creeper.” While walking in the park recently, I was reflecting on how well chosen the “winter creeper” name is.

Except for a few lingering leaves on some honeysuckle bushes, by early December the green has left the Eliza Howell woods until spring. It is gone, that is, except for one small area along the river where the evergreen winter creeper grows.

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These green leaves on the tree may look like the tree’s leaves, but they are the leaves of the climbing vine that grows up the trunk and covers the branches. Winter creeper can grow up to 70 feet high, capable of reaching the tops of trees.

The vines are large and strong, sometimes several on the same tree.

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Winter creeper was introduced in the U. S. about a century ago, imported from the Orient as an ornamental. Some have escaped into the wild. These Eliza Howell vines are very mature looking and have probably been here a long time.

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In addition to having green leaves in December, winter creeper now also has fruit  on the vines. The berries are a lot like bittersweet berries (see “Bright Berries, Bright Birds on Gray Days,” November 8, 2018), but they mature even later. They are just opening now.

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There is a second location in the park, outside the wooded area, where these evergreen vines are found. In this spot, the vines are much smaller, probably younger, and are not producing fruit.

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Some published reports indicate that winter creeper flowers and fruits only in more mature plants. Based on the very limited examples I have seen in the park, this may be the case, but my experience is much too limited to confirm it. 

What I can confirm is that a December walk in the woods mostly means brown leaves on the ground (when not covered with snow) and bare branches on the trees…

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… except for the small patch of winter creeper found some distance along the path that goes to the right after crossing the footbridge. Winter creeper is one big reason I take this particular path frequently in winter.

Bright Berries, Bright Birds on Gray Days

This time of the year (the very end of October and early November) is the best time to see House Finches in Eliza Howell Park. It is one of two good times to see Cedar Waxwings. And it is the only time to see Purple Finches here. These are fruit-eating birds in this season and Eliza Howell Park has berries that they enjoy.

As I walked the path from the road toward the river recently, I began to hear American Robins. Robins, too, are primarily fruit eaters in this season, so I knew to look in the patches of honeysuckle in this area, shrubs now loaded with red berries.

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This is Asian bush honeysuckle (Amur honeysuckle), with lovely white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall. It keeps its leaves longer than most deciduous plants, and is right now, in early November, mostly green with abundant berries. Robins, in the dozens, are one of several bird species feeding here.

Cedar Waxwings are a little less predictable than robins, but also present in good numbers most days. This is an adult.
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      Photo by Margaret Weber

Cedar Waxwings are always a joy to see. Some Waxwings still have immature features in the fall, but they also sport the very adult-looking yellow at the tip of the tail. The other time waxwings are common in the park is in August, when the fruit of the wild black cherry trees is the attraction that brings them.

One bird that can take my attention away from waxwings is the Purple Finch, for two reasons. 1) It is only present in the park, in my experience, in small numbers during a couple weeks beginning at the end of October. It breeds to the north and migrates through; for some reason, I do not see them in spring migration. I always try to get good looks while I can.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

2) The second reason for focusing attention on (what appear to be) Purple Finches is that it is often necessary to look twice to see if the bird really is a Purple Finch. House Finches are also present and it is often difficult to tell the two apart when they are not posing out in the open.

The males within each species (these pictures are of males) vary from one to another in color, in how much red they have. Females are very different from males (no red at all) and there is also a definite resemblance in the females of the two species.

House Finches are in this region throughout the year, but this time of the year is by far the best time to see them in Eliza Howell.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

There are also other birds attracted to the berries – and there are other berries attracting the birds. One of the most common vines growing in the park is Oriental Bittersweet. Bittersweet can often be found along the edges of wooded areas, where it is can cover small trees and shrubs.

Bittersweet fruit is yellow looking until it opens in the fall to reveal the red berry inside. Then more birds come.

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There are many dark cloudy gray days in early November in Detroit, but the berries and the birds they attract make the days brighter.