Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Red Maple

The beautiful color many Red Maples have in the Fall.

     Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is considered by many to be the most common and widespread tree in the East. Although it prefers moist environments (it is sometimes called Swamp or Water Maple), it can tolerate and even flourish in many more habitats. It can tolerate the widest soil conditions of any North American native tree. It is resistant to even droughts once established and is not a favorite of deer. Because of this adaptability (along with some other qualities I'll mention later), it is one of the most frequently planted landscape trees. Perhaps it is overly planted in some cases. We often see it so heavily dominating planting plans that we recommend they find alternatives. Just about the only thing it doesn't tolerate is burning, and since we've suppressed forest fires, it often out competes other native trees such as oaks and hickories.

Red Maple leaves and samaras.

     Red Maples are medium sized trees, rarely growing taller than 90'. Like all maples, they're opposite leaved and their paired winged seeds are called samaras. They're the "helicopters" many kids play with and watch twirl down when thrown up in the air. The seeds start to germinate upon making contact with the ground. 

Even the buds of Red Maple can be red in color.

     Red Maples are aptly named. Anthocyanins present in many parts of the tree impart this coloration in the Fall, particularly in acidic soils. The flowers, though small, also stand out in early spring, often in March, blooming before the tree leafs out. They provide much needed color over a still bleak landscape. The flowers are both wind and insect pollinated. Red Maples are not long lived trees, most don't get much older than 150 years, but they can start flowering by the time they're 5. 

Red, sometimes called Scarlet Maple, flowers in bloom.

     Man has been making use of Red Maples for quite a long time. According to noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, numerous indigenous tribes found uses for them. The Cherokee made an infusion from the bark to treat cramps, measles, diarrhea, hives, and what Moerman recorded as "female troubles." They were also among several tribes who also made an eye wash from the inner bark: the Ojibwa, Iroquois, and Potawatami for instance. The Iroquois also thought red maple could be a blood purifier and the dried bark used to make bread. Along with the Potawatami, they also used it to wash and deodorize their traps. The Seminole thought red maple could treat hemorrhoids, sore limbs, backs, muscles, and other of what they called "ball game sicknesses." The Abnaki used the sap as a sugary sweetener.
     Francis Porcher, a Confederate doctor charged with developing uses of native plants as substitutes for goods no longer available due to wartime Union blockades, also mentions it's uses to make sugar. He thought it quite inferior though to Sugar Maple. He also noted the use of the bark to treat eye issues. 
     Maples have been used to obtain sweet syrup well before Europeans arrived into North America. Although all maples can supply sap that can be converted, none are as concentrated as are the Sugar Maples. Red Maples are not only lower in sugar concentrate, but they also have a shorter time they can be tapped. By the time buds start to open, the flavor becomes affected and no longer productive. The wood is a bit brittle, so sometimes the tree is referred to as Soft Maple in the commercial timber industry. But it is still used in furniture and other goods. Male cultivars tend to be more colorful, but also often are considered as producing highly allergenic pollen. Female trees on some cultivars may be less colorful, but also are considered to be much less likely to cause allergies.

Cut red maple twigs with buds are often a sign of squirrels feeding.

     But it's wildlife who may benefit the most this commonly planted tree. 297 different caterpillar species have been documented feeding on maples, which feed birds and bats. Many bird species eat the samaras, though they are not a preferred food as they become available during the early summer when birds feed more heavily on insects. Though toxic to horses, many mammals feed on maple. Deer don't prefer the foliage however, meaning it has a competitive advantage being allowed to grow in place of other plants deer consume. 
    As you can see, there are many reasons to plant this tree. No wonder it is the state tree of Rhode Island. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wild Grapes

Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) is among the most common of our wild grapes.

     Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.) are an often misunderstood, but extremely valuable plant in our local woods. There are over 60 different species in North America, with 11 in Virginia, and 7 in the DC area. These woody vines can grow over 100ft in height and some varieties (granted in Europe) are known to live over 400 years. Most older vines have exfoliating bark and forked tendrils which help identify them. There are many species of birds that utilize the shredded bark to build their nests and many who favor nesting in the tangles themselves.
     There are many people who mistakenly think that grape vines are harmful to trees. Others mistake them for the invasive nonnative vine Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) which can smother and shade out native plants, and while removing it, accidentally destroy the grapes. One way to tell the difference is that Porcelainberry has white pith in its stems rather than the brown of grapes. 

Porcelainberry is easily mistaken for grape when not in fruit, but is not edible and is an invasive nonnative vine.

     Native grape vines are rarely damaging and will not kill healthy trees. They do not strangle and constrict the tree trunks (girdling them) like many nonnative vines who did not evolve with them actually do. Let's recall that if they really did kill off the native trees, they would have done so a long time ago. So these native vines get an undeserved bad rap and are actually a beneficial and integral part of the woodland edges.
     People have had a long association with grapes of course. Viticulture has been around and tied with civilization and even religion for centuries. When the Norse first reached North America there were so many grapes that they referred to is as Vinland. Survivalists know that cutting a section of vine can yield quite a bit of watery sap that can be used as an emergency water source. Parts of Virginia are well known for their domestic grape production and parts are definitely wine country. 

Muscadine Grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) or Scuppernong are among the biggest native grapes and is the most cultivated of the native grapes.

     Native American Indian tribes have of course always used grapes as well, not just for food, but for a multitude of other reasons. Noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman recorded many of these uses. The Iroquois for example used grape parts to treat anemia, stomach troubles, kidneys, urination issues, and even chewed the leaves to treat such mundane things as hiccups. The Menominee squeezed grapes to use as an eye wash. The Chippewa, Delaware, and Oklahoma all used it to wash hair (and some to treat pulmonary problems, diarrhea, rheumatism, and diabetes). The Mohegan, Seminole, and Shinnecock all used various grape species for dealing with headaches. The Cherokee thought parts of grape could deal with diarrhea, stomach ailments, liver problems, blood disorders, urinary irregularities, and even used the wilted leaves to draw soreness from breasts after birth. The Choctaw treated fevers with grape and used the sap to induce lactation in new mothers. The Seminole also used it for stomach aches, fevers, as a religious emetic, and as cordage for such things as coffin lashings. 
     During the Civil War, Dr. Francis Porcher was tasked with finding wild alternatives to goods no longer available to the Confederacy due to war and blockades. He did an amazing job compiling these uses. Most of his book entries were short and to the point, but he devoted several pages to uses for grapes. These included use as a dye, but he devoted most to the production of wine in great detail. 
      Animals of course make the most use of these native vines. While many mammals eat the fruits, helping to disperse the seeds, over 100 bird species have been documented eating grapes. They are a favorite of many of them. Another 79 caterpillar species have been documented using grapes as host plants to feed on, especially sphinx moths. These of course then feed many birds, 96% of which feed their young insects and preferring caterpillars over all others. All 17 of the bats found in the region also eat insects, and most favor the moths these caterpillars turn into as well.

The daytime flying wasp mimic Grapeleaf Skeletonizer Moth is one of the many that feed on grape. 

     I've eaten many a wild grape myself, knowing the best fruiting takes place along edges where the vine gets sun. They are much smaller than domesticated varieties and vary widely in flavor. Some, such as Frost Grapes, are much better tasting after they're hit by frost. Some are are tart and others sour, but I always enjoy trying them. So appreciate the wild grapes that grow in our parks and woodlands, knowing they have a rich history of uses by both humans and wildlife. 

Frost Grape or Winter Grapes (Vitis vulpina

Frost Grapes taste much better after they've been touched by frost and can be eaten (even as wild raisins) even well into winter, giving them their other common name of Winter Grape. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Buck Moths

     So while waiting in my tree stand for a buck to show up, I noticed quite a few Buck Moths instead. These are quite different from most moths in a couple of ways. First they fly during the day rather than at night. Secondly, they come out during the late Fall when most moths have already completed their adult lives. 
     Buck Moths are called buck moths, some people say, because they come out during the deer rut when bucks are looking for mates. That was indeed true this day, as they were floating around right after the sun warmed the day enough from the frosty night before. Before flying, these moths, like many moths do, tremble and shiver, warming their flight muscles. They can operate in much lower temperatures than the vast majority of other moths. 
     The various species (our local version are Eastern Buck Moths, Hemileuca maia) are actually members of the Saturniidae, the giant silk moths such as Luna and Cecropia moths. Like most of them, the adults don't feed at all. Unlike most, the gregarious caterpillars are covered in stinging hairs. Early on they feed on various oaks, but later can feed on several other deciduous trees. Males are smaller than females, and males have reddish tips to their abdomens as opposed to the black tips of the females.
     When they encounter trouble, they often curl their heads under their body, lift their wings to expose their bright colored hairy bodies, and play dead. They can sit motionless for a good period of time in this position, until the danger hopefully goes away. Some believe they are distasteful to some predators. 
A Buck Moth plays "dead.
     I always love seeing these moths so late in the Fall, a reminder of warmer days. They flutter around in such an obvious fashion, that is until they think their lives are in danger and play dead.