Sneak peak preview of “Forensic Botanizing: Winter Plant ID”

After yesterday’s fresh coating of ~8″ of snow, I headed to Anchor Diamond Park at Hawkwood in the Town of Ballston to get a glimpse of what we might encounter on February 29.  I will be conducting a winter plant identification walk that afternoon along parts of several trails – I hope you will join me for this fun outing!

Today, I spied these plants along the route.  This sampling includes two trees, two shrubs, two vines and two forbs.  How many can you identify?  (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)  Simply click on “Answer” immediately beneath each photo to reveal the identity of each plant.  Have fun!

Hope to see you on February 29!

Happy trails!

Star of Bethlehem

Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

On this Christmas Day, I got to thinking about the Star of Bethlehem and wondered why a flower would have such a name. The following is what I discovered.

Very simply, the plant’s star-shaped flowers inspired its name, that after the Star of Bethlehem that appeared in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. Because of this biblical association, this plant embraces a meaning of purity, hope and happiness.

And now, about that plant. Star-of-Bethlehem is not native to this continent; rather, it is from southern Europe and southern Africa. It is a perennial forb with a rosette of basal leaves spanning about twelve inches across, each about 6-12″ long and up to ¼” wide. The leaves curve upward from the base and bend downward around the middle. Leaves have smooth margins, parallel venation and each often has a white stripe in the middle.

Star-of-Bethlehem – Note the grass-like leaves with a white stripe along the middle of each.

Each plant has one or more flower stalks arising from the center of the basal rosette with each stalk terminating with a raceme of white six-petaled blooms. Flowers open in the morning and usually close up by noon.

Star-of-Bethlehem raceme of blooms (four fully open plus one bud)

Finally, back to the Star of Bethlehem. Read an explanation from an astronomer’s perspective; and another.

With all that being said, I want to wish you all a very blessed and Merry Christmas!

Happy trails!

O Tannenbaum!

O Tannenbaum is enjoyed by many at this time of year.  Interestingly, though, the song is actually singing the praises of a fir tree:  in particular, its evergreen quality as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness.  Read the lyrics.

One of our native fir trees is Eastern Hemlock.

Eastern Hemlock grove

Eastern Hemlock

Take a listen to Nat King Cole’s immortal voice and enjoy this holiday classic in its native tongue – German.

Another “evergreen” exhibiting “constancy” isn’t a fir, or even a tree.  It’s a small plant that has appeared across our landscape since prehistoric times.  Known as a clubmoss, this particular species is called Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) (also called Prince’s Pine or Ground Pine).  This specimen caught my eye; I dubbed it “O Tannenbaum!”

O Tannenbaum – Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) adorned by berries of Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Merry Christmas to all!

Happy trails!

Winter “returns” on December 21

Two feet of snow about two weeks ago.  Lots of very mild, damp and even foggy weather since then.  Nevertheless, it’s that time of year again!

The winter solstice will occur on December 21.

Read about how snowflakes form.  View the science of snowflakes.  View a slideshow of photographs of snowflakes.

L-to-R: Black-capped Chickadee; Northern Cardinal; Tufted Titmouse

Winter is a great time for birdwatching from the comfort of your own home.  Consider putting up a few bird feeders.  For more info about winter bird feeding, please view my prior post.  Winter is also an excellent time to learn about animal tracks.  View this guide to winter tracks.

The arrival of this new season will mark the return of the shortest days of the entire year.  How do you want to enjoy the outdoors with those few hours of daylight?

Here is a list of winter outdoor activities to consider:

Happy trails!

Peppermint – How to ID and Enjoy

One week ago, we experienced our first frost. So, I thought it a good idea to check out a large patch of peppermint that I found along a trail for which I have been conducting a wildflower inventory this year. No worries. It remains a vibrant green today!


Peppermint – a closer look.

How to ID –

Peppermint is a non-native forb that prefers wet soils and is occasionally found in our area. Watch a brief video about distinguishing between peppermint and spearmint. Read about planting, growing and harvesting mint.

Enjoy your harvest –

After collecting fresh mint leaves, you are free to use them in a variety of ways – fresh or dried, or perhaps an extract.

My batch of today’s Homemade Mint Jelly (see recipe below).

Read about how to dry the mint you harvested.

Recipes with fresh mint to consider –

Before we have a killing frost later this month, I encourage you to check out your favorite peppermint patch and try some of the recipes listed above. Enjoy!

Peppermint along trail

Happy trails!

Autumn-olive Fruit – How to ID and Enjoy

Autumn-olive leaves

View a video on how to identify Autumn-olive. Autumn-olive is considered an invasive species in New York; read more about this plant.

Autumn-olive fruit

The fruit of Autumn-olive contain carotenoids, including considerable amounts of lycopene. A study from 2001 found that “lycopene content per 100 g ranged from 15 to 54 mg in fresh fruit from the naturalized plants” (Fruit of Autumn Olive: A Rich Source of Lycopene. HortScience. 36. 1136-1137); plants like the ones that we find locally and as shown in the photos above. For comparison, tomatoes also contain lycopene, but typically only 3mg per 100 g. Autumn olive berries are also a good source of vitamin C and vitamin E, and they exhibit a strong antioxidant activity (J Med Plants Res. 2012. 6:5196–5203 and Food Technol Biotechnol. 2007. 45:402–409).

Read about how to forage for Autumn-olive berries.

Today’s harvest – 10 cups

Recipes to consider after your harvest –

Please note: By cooking (i.e., boiling) the whole berries, you will kill the seeds. Therefore, if you choose to remove the cooked seeds in preparing this fruit for a recipe, you may simply discard the seeds outdoors without fear of helping to spread this invasive species.  Read more about this plant.

Happy trails!

Hickory nuts now falling

Hickory trees are now dropping their individual loads of ripened nuts.  Shagbark Hickory and Pignut Hickory nuts are the most common and tastiest of the hickory trees found in our area.  Today, I began harvesting some because they are my favorite tree nut and I enjoy the rich flavor that develops when using them in baked goods, especially cookies.

Pignut Hickory nuts

Most of what I found today were Pignut Hickory nuts.  Their husk clings tightly to the shell and each segment must be peeled from the shell before the nut can be cracked open to retrieve those tasty morsels of nutmeats inside.  Other critters also enjoy hickory nuts –

Squirrel’s dinner table…with a view

For more info about how to ID these two species (and also how to ID Bitternut Hickory, which is unpalatable), the best nutcracker to use, and some recipes to try to enjoy your harvest, please view my prior post.

Fall colors mosaic

Happy trails!