Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scents of the seasons

The seasons have their own smells, distinctive scents in the air that are as tell-tale of time as the vegetation on the ground.

Spring arrives with a sour-sweet smell that arises from the brooks and swamps as soon as the snow melts. It comes from the rotted leaves and roots of last year’s plants that will feed this year’s growth.

Flowers appear, and you can almost tell the part of the month by the fragrances – the early Andromeda, tulip trees, magnolias, mustards, lilacs, and rockets. Like the season, they are fresh, sweet, celebrating rebirth. Then come the rich, heady scents of summer – the wild roses, clovers, milkweeds, pokeweed, and Queen Anne's lace. As summer wanes into fall, the goldenrods and Joe-Pye weeds begin filling the air with spice – scents of anise and vanilla.

And then the leaves begin to fall, offering an earthy but pleasant aroma of decay, only to be covered with the snow. Snow has a scent of its own and its coming on the wind is easily forecast with a good sniff.

The scents of the seasons are a calendar for the nose. Enjoy the latest page!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A kick and a puff

Ages before video games or even Lego and Erector sets, children often entertained themselves with the toys of nature. In early autumn, a favorite was the Giant Puffball, a magical fungus that can reach massive proportions – in the world of fungi, at least. Specimens measuring six feet across and weighing more than 40 pounds have been found.

For a kid in the 18th or 19th Century, a big, white puffball sprouting in a pasture was just too tempting to ignore. Perhaps presaging their descendants’ interest in football and soccer, youngsters would invariably give the “ball” a good, swift kick. The reward was the namesake puff: A thick cloud of more than a trillion spores could burst from a ripe puffball.

The kicker probably did the fungus a favor, for the spores are its seeds and the kick cast the fate of future generations to the wind. Odds of success for a microscopic spore are slim, however, for its chances of creating a new Giant Puffball are literally one in billions.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bounty from above

They say that tall oaks from little acorns grow. Judging from this year’s acorn supply, the region will be well-forested in the future.

Oaks occasionally generate bountiful acorn crops – and many years, produce not a nut. Last spring apparently offered ideal conditions for pollinating oak flowers – dry, warm weather.

Of course, most of this year’s bumper crop will be consumed – by nearly 100 kinds of birds and mammals. For creatures as small as a nuthatch or a mouse and as large as a bear and a deer, acorns are a major source of food in the fall. The ebb and flow of populations of such common creatures as Gray Squirrels and Blue Jays are closely related to acorn yields.

With so many fans in nature, you’d think humans would be acorn-eaters, too. In fact, they once were: American Indians and early settlers ate acorns. Today, however, we’ve been spoiled by the sweeter meats of peanuts, cashews, almonds, and other nuts that are also easier to process – and to salt.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Fairy rings

Fairy rings are magical places, nearly perfect circles of mushrooms that run from a few to many feet in diameter. Also called fairy circles or pixie rings, they were more often seen in the days when pastures were common and before chemicals and frequent mowing turned lawns into monotonous carpets of green.

A fairy ring marks the edge of an underground growth of fungus, called mycelium. This subterranean body spreads slowly outward, emitting chemicals ahead of it that convert organic matter to food usable by the fungus. When the time is right, the mycelium shoots up mushrooms at its outer edge. Like flowers on plants, they distribute spores that will create future fungi and, perhaps, fairy rings.

That’s the scientific explanation. Folklorists tell more colorful tales of fairies and elves, dancing in circles, wearing down the grass and sparking toadstools to sprout. If you weren’t careful and stepped inside a fairy ring, you might be transported into another world.

More fantastic than folklore is fact, however. There’s a fairy ring in France that’s a half-mile wide and said to be 700 years old!

Monday, September 04, 2006

The hitchhikers

A walk in the woods or across a field at this time of year will often net you a collection of hitchhikers.

Plants like beggars lice, burdock, tick-trefoils, sticktights, and black-burs employ the by-hook-or-by-crook method of navigation. Their seedpods have evolved hooks that latch onto fur or clothing and hitch a ride to a new location, a place possibly suitable for sinking roots. The technique is so efficient that a major international corporation has made billions capturing it in plastic and calling it Velcro.

These plants’ interest in us turns the tables a tad. We humans have found countless uses for plants: as food, clothing, shelter, fuel, medicines, and decorations. How nice it is that at least a few plants have found a use for us.