Tree and Plant Id

In these posts I examine how to identify trees and plants, either using technology or the old fashioned ways of simple keys and rubrics.

Wild Foods for Wildlife in Rehab

Collecting and sorting wild foods (Photo: K. McDonald)

How You Can Help Wildlife

When I walk I graze, I can't help it. I love looking for wild foods to munch on or smell.  It's a lot fun to introduce students and adults to the bounty of nature that is all around them if they learn how to look. The other part to that is how to identify plants that are safe to snack on.  At a recent conference I was made aware of how I could benefit more than just myself when I'm out there hiking around.  Bear with me as I shift topics, but this will all make sense shortly.

As an apprentice wildlife rehabilitator I've always known that it's important to provide foods and stimulation for the animals that come into our care.  Using foods that are as close as possible to their natural foods and environments as possible is really important.   Until now I've stumbled around using prescribed diets, field guides, and books that could help us approximate those foods. I've pulled worms from compost for rails, to make mud-pie bowls of crawly goodness, and I've picked poke-weed for an impatient grackle, and I've cut oak leaves for squirrels to make nests (called dreys) in their hammocks. Wild food was one of those question marks for me, because I didn't want to bring anything into the center that wasn't safe, and I also wasn't always sure how to prepare it. (Is there a recipe for grubs and worms?)   That's where this fun new website comes in.  It's  called Wild Foods4Wildlife at wildfoods4wildlife.com. The founder, Kate Guenther, is a wildlife rehabilitator who spoke at a recent conference in Virginia. I found her website interesting and very helpful, so I thought I'd share it with you.

If you're not convinced how happy food makes captive wild animals, then watch this video (yes, they really do smack that loudly when eating, especially mice):

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Tree Identification: The Arbor Day Field Guide

cotton wood leaves

Tree Identification: What Tree is That?

I know that trees aren't the fuzzy charismatic mega-fauna that most people adore and love, but they are an important part of our world, from ecosystem services to wood products and even the lowly toilet paper. Being able to walk into the woods and identify trees is like going into someone's home and saying hello to friends. It creates a familiarity with your surroundings and helps you to understand what is going on around you. For instance, the presence of willows means water and the presence of sweet gums means the land was probably disturbed in the not too distant past. All forests tell stories, you just have to know what trees you're looking at, and what their presence means.

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The Arbor Day website lets you choose your region in North America (Photo: Arbor Day Website).

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Botany For Gardeners: A Beginning Botany Guide

botany for gardeners

Helpful Plant Biology and Botany Book For Gardeners and Naturalists

As the gardening season swings into full bloom, I'm reminded that it's hard to find good basic information about botany, with the breadth and depth that most naturalists and gardeners desire or need (and not too much of what they don't want). Today's post is a short one, dedicated to a book I've found quite useful in my own garden. It's also a refresher for teaching botany classes and hikes, as well as a classroom tool. The book is called "Botany for Gardeners" and it is by Brian Capon. Currently it is in its 3rd edition, which was published in 2010, which is available in paperback, hardback, or in E-book format.

The reason I am recommending this book, is that it's an essential desktop companion for those wishing to understand plants, or those needing more understanding of the inner workings of their gardens. The author does not treat you like a professional botanist, using high level botanical jargon, but he also does not shy away from taking you into the biological basis of plant growth and development. He starts with plant cells and seeds and then progresses through roots and shoots. Through this book, you will learn the basics of how plant cells and cell walls work, as well as the laying down of xylem (water) and phloem (food) cells that supply nutrients. For me it was great to relearn how roots push their way through the soil and how apical buds unfurl. You can read about how plant growth, hormones, photoperiod, and nutrients affect plants, or you can deep dive into flowers and plant reproduction.

This book is a very simple and concise look at botany in a practical way. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a "gardening-how-to" book, it's about the nuts-and-bolts of botany and plant biology. It is meant as a primer and refresher of botany (especially useful for those that may have had botany years ago and forgotten). "Botany for Gardeners" is written as a high school and adult level.  The  focus is  primarily on vascular plants, with some information on nonvascular mosses.

I've used this book for a plant taxonomy class for advanced biology students, ages 13-16. We didn't read the book from cover to cover, but I had them read sections to go along with the plant taxonomy we were learning. We especially used it during the first 1/2 of the class, which was based more on plant physiology and ecology. I would highly recommend ordering this book for your collection, whether you're leading plant-and-nature hikes or just interested in a deeper understanding of what grows in your garden.

 

Eastern Skunk Cabbage, a Sign of Spring

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E. Skunk cabbage flower bud (Photo: Wiki commons)

A Plant With Eau-de-skunk

A Quick Note Before You Begin: Many of you have commented that my spelling and grammar is often atrocious, and that is inexcusable for an educator! So, I'm taking steps to remedy the situation. I wanted to say WELCOME to Sally Parker and Anne Littlewolf, my new editors for the blog! Of course, all mistakes are my own, but they are going to try to help me on that score. Thank you ladies and welcome on board!

On To The Smelly Blog Post For Today!

One of the early harbingers of Spring, even before all the snow melts, is skunk cabbage. The variety I'm going to talk about today is the Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). There is also a related western variety. Eastern skunk cabbage grows East of the Mississippi, into New England, and as far south as Tennessee (where it is protected) and South Carolina. It is one of the first buds to appear in Spring, and one of the first bright green leaves you will see with the spring leaf-in.

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E. Skunk cabbage along a waterway in Spring (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Eastern skunk cabbage is a low growing and soft bodied perennial herb that you can find around low lying streams and wetlands. It is in the Araceae family, along with lilies and the familiar Jack-in-the-pulpit (when you see the flower, you'll know why). In the early spring, it sends out a flower bud called a SPATHE (4-6" tall) that grows up through the ground. Inside the flower is a SPADIX (2-5") which is a fleshy stem of flowers coming up through the center (think of your typical lily). The skunk cabbage flower is a mottled maroon color with whitish-green streaks, a spiral curvature, and a noticeable hood. The spadix (flower stalk) is whitish yellow. The flowers on the spadix are tightly packed. If you look closely, they don't have petals, but modified sepals and reproductive bits sticking out.

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E. Skunk weed flower, notice the spadix or flower stalk in the center. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The spadix releases a rotting meat scent that attracts early spring pollinators such as flies, bees, and carrion beetles which emerge earlier than most butterflies and moths. You know a plant is rather pungent when its Latin name includes foetidus (fetid= rank or smelly). Once pollinated, the seeds of the skunk cabbage look like round balls (2" diameter) about the same color as the flower petals. The balls have multiple berry-like seedlets that eventually fall apart from each other in late summer. Skunk cabbage doesn't spread through any other means than its fruits.

Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage)

Skunk cabbage fruit. (Photo: Tom Potterfield, Flicker Sharing).

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Leaf Snap: A Tree and Leaf ID App Using Your Phone

Acer saccharum - Sugar Maple fall leaves

Identifying Leaves with Technology

During the fall it's a natural time of year to think about leaves. If you are hiking in the field you may want to consider a leaf identification app called Leaf Snap http://leafsnap.com/. This app can be used with iPhone or Android and is free. It is designed to help with tree identification using leaves. I like the ease of use with the program, it is easy to navigate and get around the different offerings. When you open the app it allows you to brows different species of trees, check out your collection of photos, and options about photo size/user/etc. The main feature is the "Snap It" Icon. The only upshot to the snap-it function is that you can't just take a picture of a leaf outside on a tree, you have to put a single leaf on a white background. if you're in the field I'd suggest carrying a folded piece of paper or small notebook. When you take the picture the image is uploaded to their site, so those on limited data plans should take this as a consideration. Once the photo uploads the program then tries to identify your leaf with the closest match of the actual species.

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