the amazing California Bay

The California Bay tree, also known as the California Bay Laurel or California Laurel, and a host of other names, is one of its kind, the only species in its own genus, and quite an interesting plant.  Bay trees are part of the coastal forest and unique to the California floristic province.

Huckleberry Botanical preserve, Oakland CA

Mixed oak-bay coastal forest at Huckleberry Botanical preserve in the Oakland hills.

Their leaves are more pungent than the Mediterranean bay used in cooking. My husband once stuffed a chicken with bay laurel leaves before cooking it on a Boy Scout camping trip and found it completely inedible.

Like some other coastal tree species, California bay have a swollen base of root crown called lignotuber which protects delicate buds that sprout when the central trunk has been damaged.

Stump sprouts in California bay laurel

Stump sprouts in California bay laurel shoot upward from the root crown.

The resultant growth of multiple stems emerging from the root crown makes this forest look like a dense jungle.

California Bay Laurel

Atypical growth form of the California is bay tree, where numerous sprouts have replaced the central stump that might have been damaged by fire or storm.

multiple stems of California bay laurel

Multiple stems of California bay laurel tower over the fern understory on the banks of a small creek.

California Live Oak, Huckleberry Botanical Preserve, Oakland CA

On the more southern-facing (I.e., sunnier and drier) side of the creek, the trees are predominantly California Live Oak, with noticeably fewer laurels and no fern understory.

What a difference the microclimate of this forest makes.  We wore our jackets while hiking through the dark, shady north facing laurel forest, and worked up a sweat climbing the sun-exposed hills of oak forest.

Mixed hardwood-coniferous forest at Huckleberry Botanical Preserve, Oakland CA

Mixed hardwood-coniferous forest in the Huckleberry Botanical Preserve is truly impressive.

color me beautiful

The Amur Maple forest has once again reached its full fall splendor.

amur-maple-forest-

The introduced Amur Maple is really more of a tall shrub, but it grows so densely along the roadside it forms an almost impenetrable forest.

Dense thickets of Amur Maple crowd out and shade out natives that might grow there —  really the only thing this species has going for it (in my opinion) is the brilliant color display of its fall leaves.  The ground cover beneath the trees looks like a collection of fallen leaves, but on closer inspection, it seems to be a mini-forest of Amur Maple seedlings, ready to bolt up as soon as a light gap appears in the forest overhead.

fall color - Amur Maple-

Bare branches above, lots of colorful leaves on the ground — right?

fall color - Amur Maple-

There are some fallen leaves here, but there are more tiny seedlings, each with just a few leaves, carpeting the ground and leaving no bare areas for anything else to invade.

fall color - Amur Maple-

It’s a very photogenic forest, and easy to walk through since there is no understory.

fall color - Amur Maple-

The birch in the background established itself first here, but the Amur Maple seedlings beneath the birch will make it impossible for birch seedlings to get established.

fall color - Amur Maple-

but what color!

fall color - Amur Maple forest

Another glorious Indian Summer day

Door county sights

The Door county peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to enjoy a different climate than the surrounding part of the state.  Stepping back a couple of weeks from the peak fall color of central Wisconsin, trees are just barely tinged with red and gold, and the weather is balmy instead of chilled.  Maybe it’s the lake effect.

We hiked along the limestone cliffs at Cave point county park on the eastern edge of the peninsula and marveled at the way the trees could seemingly grow right out of cracks in these 400 million year old rocks that have been polished smooth by glacial action.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Pounding waves undercut the limestone bluffs and create caves along the shoreline.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water near the rocks is crystal clear and a beautiful jade green color.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

A mixed forest of white cedar, alder, beech, and maple is mostly stunted in its growth because of the lack of soil covering the limestone.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water runoff from waves or rain/snow fall removes a lot of what little soil accumulates, and most of the trail along the shoreline involves walking over exposed tree roots.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

In a couple of weeks, the fall color here will be stunning, just as advertised in the Door county brochures.

Whitefish Dunes state park, Jacksonport, WI

Adjacent to Cave Point park is the much larger Whitefish Dunes state park, which runs the length of the sandy shoreline here.  Plant life here faces a different challenge than growing through cracks in limestone, namely establishing roots in a shifting surface of sand with little subsurface moisture.

but as always, wherever you go, life seems to find a way…

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

North Shore color

And so it begins, the slow march toward another winter.  But first we are gifted with the brilliant colors of fall.  We traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior to get our first glimpse of this year’s color show, and weren’t disappointed.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (2)

Arriving in the evening at Lutsen ski area, I wasn’t sure we would get any good views of the fall color on the hills.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (3)

But the weather cleared up for at least a couple of hours early the next morning.

And the hike around the trails on Oberg mountain was definitely rewarding.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (4)

Trails were muddy and slippery, but colorful.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (5)

View of Oberg Lake from the north side of the mountain trail, looking northwest where the color change was most evident.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (6)

Next to Oberg Lake was an enticing wetland area that should have had ducks, loons, or at least one moose.

ake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (9)

Lake Superior in the distance was overcast and gray instead of its usual brilliant blue which makes such a nice contrast with the orange and yellow of the hillsides.

With the recent rain just days before we arrived, the rivers and waterfalls were overflowing with rapidly rushing water.

Ray Bergland wayside park, Lutsen, MN-2

Even the smaller creeks had rapids. It’s easy to see how trees get swept downstream with high volumes of water flow that wash away the soil around their roots.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-4

Cascade Falls, south of Grand Marais always has impressive waterfalls, but their volume and noise level after recent rains was remarkable.  The water is coffee-colored from the leaching of leaf tannins in the wetlands upstream: the more extensive the drainage of wetlands, the darker the amber brown color of the water (and waterfall).

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN

One point in the waterfall trail gives you a view of three of the six or seven cascades in Cascade Waterfalls.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-2

Another view of the cascade with a slower shutter speed.

butterfly “bushes”

Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species).  Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.

american painted lady-

A Painted Lady delicately inserts its proboscis into each open flower on a gigantic blooming head of Stonecrop.  They are easily recognized by the owl eyes on the underside of their hindwings and orange and white splotches of color on the topside of their forewings.  Newly emerged butterflies are brightly colored with entire margins of their wings intact. 

american painted lady-

Apparently they like the nectar of Zinnia flowers as well.

But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies.  The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,

eastern tiger swallowtail-

This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks a little beaten up with frayed hind wings. The eggs she will lay or has already laid will develop through the caterpillar stage and into pupae that overwinter as a chrysalis. These butterflies don’t migrate.

but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed.  You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.

eastern tiger swallowtail-feeding on butterfly bush (Buddleya species)

The swallowtail has inserted its proboscis deep into one of the flowers (I colored light blue) of the flower spike.  Long, thin floral tubes like this would exclude almost all of the bees and flies and are probably much too narrow for hummingbirds to utilize.  Thus — an exclusive butterfly resource.

silver spotted skipper-

A Silver-spotted Skipper tried to feed on the butterfly bush along with the other butterfly species, but seemed to be excluded or chased off. So, it settled for whatever the Hosta flowers had to offer.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

What it takes to be a giant

On a walk around the San Jose neighborhood, I encountered a single absolutely giant sunflower in a sidewalk garden.

giant sunflower

I admired the size of the flower head, which was about 16 inches across and probably weighed 10 pounds, wondering how many seeds must be packed in so very tightly and mathematically precisely (see an earlier post on “how many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”).

giant sunflower

Seeds are precisely arranged in spiral rows to maximize packing.

But then I got to thinking about what it takes to produce that giant flower head and develop all those seeds.  Supported by enhanced woody fibers in the stalk and fed by photosynthetic machinery in huge, oversized leaves and an elongated, deep taproot reaching deep into the soil for water and nutrients, the enormous reproductive output of this plant has the potential to be record-breaking.

But alas, a quick google search confirmed that Hans-Peter Schaffer holds the Guinness record for sunflower height (30 feet, 1 inch), mine was probably just over 8 feet. The giant Mongolian sunflowers routinely grow to 16-18 feet and sport 18-24 inch flower disks, so my giant wasn’t really record breaking at all.  Still impressive for an herbaceous plant, though!

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.

The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing.  But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).

Pink snow

And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down  the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.