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.

 

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!

 

 

Poison Ivy on Cottonwood: Taking A Good Look

In early to mid-October in Eliza Howell Park, before most other plants had reached their Fall color peak, Poison Ivy gets my attention. It adds color to the trunks of trees and the fruit attracts birds.

The vine climbs many of the Cottonwood trees inside the road loop, where it is easy to get a good look.

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Poison Ivy is a native species that usually gets talked about for only one reason: stem, leaves, and roots all contain urushiol, which causes a rash reaction in most people who come into contact with it. So the message is to avoid it. But it is safe to look and I have enjoyed getting to know some of its characteristics. I have recently been observing how it grows on Cottonwood trees and each picture here is of Poison ivy on a Cottonwood.

Poison Ivy often grows 20 feet or more up the trunk of a large tree.

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The leaves in fall are red or yellow or orange.

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The fruit is abundant this year. Humans (and other primates, I think) are the only animals that have the rash reaction to the urushiol in Poison Ivy. Birds eat the fruit and deer and insects eat the leaves.

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The craggy bark of Cottonwood trees provides a good surface for the Poison Ivy vines to climb. The vines tend to be hairy, a fact that helps to identify the species during the months of the year when there are no leaves.

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Poison Ivy is not the only colorful vine that climbs trees (the leaves of Virginia Creeper, for example, also turn reddish), but most of the red vines on large trees that a visitor is likely to see within the road loop in the park at this time of the year are Poison Ivy.

This is an ideal time to take a good look and to get a better understanding of its role among the flora and fauna of North America.

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The classic advice of “Look, but Don’t Touch” applies here. Maybe take several good looks.

 

Common Milkweed: A Frequent Stop

From May until October, Common milkweed is one of the flowers that I stop at regularly on my rounds in Eliza Howell Park. From being a “weed” in need of eradication, it has in recent years acquired both respectability and fame as a host plant for the larvae of the popular Monarch butterfly. I watch it for that role and for many other reasons.

In September, the plants, many of them 4 feet tall, are dominated by follicles (seed pods).

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When the seed pods open – and some are just beginning to do so – we can witness the delicate beauty of the seeds attached to the silk that allows them to be dispersed by the wind. This is definitely worth seeking out a sunny fall day.

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Common Milkweed is a perennial wildflower native to eastern North America that spreads both by seeds and by underground rhizomes, the second being the reason they are often found in patches. They sprout in May, usually shortly before the Monarchs return. (This year I saw the first Monarch on May 15.)

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Monarchs start laying eggs on the milkweed leaves almost immediately after arrival. Once hatched, the larvae (caterpillars) eat the tender leaves. This picture of a tiny caterpillar is from early June.

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By the end of June, milkweed is beginning to flower. I was especially struck this year by how fragrant the flowers are. Even for someone like me, who does not have the most sensitive nose, it is easy to know that one is in a patch of blooming milkweeds from the fragrance alone.

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Milkweeds get their name from the fact that leaves and stems, when broken, produce a milky sap. There is a toxicity in the milkweed plant and Monarchs acquire this toxicity from ingesting the leaves as caterpillars. The result is that adult Monarchs are not preyed upon by birds, who have come to know that Monarchs are not healthy food.

Monarch butterflies are not the only insect that benefits from using Common Milkweed as a host plant for young. In September, it is easy to find seed pods covered with Large Milkweed Bugs. In the picture, the left shows adult Large Milkweed Bugs and the right picture is of young ones (nymphs). (Yes, there are Small Milkweed Bugs, but not in this entry.)

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Large Milkweed Bugs have some characteristics similar to Monarchs: milkweed is the host plant on which the young feed; they are orange and black; they acquire a protective toxicity from milkweed; they migrate south for the winter.

I have recognized Common Milkweed for as long as I can remember, but I have only really gotten to know it from my observations in Eliza Howell Park in recent years. The more I know about it, the more I like it.

 

The Female in Winter: Staghorn Sumac

There are not many seeds or fruits still hanging on in January and February on the trees and shrubs in Eliza Howell Park. They can, however, still be found on staghorn sumac in deep winter.

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When I see “her” during my winter walks in the park, I am aware that “he” does not have anything much to show at this time of the year. Staghorn sumac is one of the few plant species that develop female and male flowers on completely different plants (“dioecious”); some plants are male and some are female.

Perhaps the best known dioecious plant is cannabis, an annual. In the case of cannabis, male plants are usually discarded because pollination is unwelcome; the unpollinated flowers of the female pants are considered the best part of the plant for psychoactive effect (according to what I read).

In our Detroit neighborhood, a good example of a dioecious tree is ginkgo, which has been planted as a shade tree along certain streets. In planting ginkgos, the females are not usually as welcome as the males because the female’s abundant fruit falls on sidewalks and produces an unpleasant smell when stepped on.

About the beginning of June in Eliza Howell, the sumac flowers develop on separate shrubs, the female on the left in the photo and the male on the right.

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Though they were put together here for easier comparison, I do not usually find the female and male plants in close proximity. Staghorn sumac can grow from seed, of course, but it typically spreads by underground shoots (rhizomes). As a result, a clump of sumac is usually made up of plants all of the same sex; it is not really a clump, in fact, but parts of the same plant.

The quite large clump/plant along the nature trail that I observe most frequently is female, some meters away from the nearest male that I am aware of. Sumac depends upon insects, like bees, for pollination over such distances.

The male flowers do not last long. By late June, they are beginning to fade while the females (again on the left in the photo) are just beginning to turn the red that will persevere for many months.

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For the next 6 months, the flowers and seed clusters stand out.

This picture is from the middle of July.

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While birds eat the seeds, they seem to do so very late in the winter, after most of the other fruit in the park is gone. This picture was taken in the middle of December.

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In many bird species, though not all, males are more colorful and attention-getting than females.

In the case of staghorn sumac, however, my attention is fully on the female for most of the year and only very briefly do I follow the male. She is there, standing proud, in the coldest part of winter.