Friday, September 21, 2012

Landscaping with Native Plants

When selecting plants for landscaping and agriculture, there are many advantages to planting native over non-native foliage.

Native plants are resistant to diseases found in their natural ranges. For example, the non-native pine trees in Missouri are susceptible to attacks from several insects such as the bark beetle. This beetle removes the tree bark in order to build galleries to lay eggs. The damage to the bark causes a lack of sap flow which immediately kills the tree. The insect population then moves to nearby live trees and infects them. In contrast, the native Redbud and Burr Oak trees have no predators. These adaptations to the environment result in the need for no pesticides or herbicides to be used to sustain a healthy population.

Native plants are not weakened by temperature fluctuation and are, therefore, able to survive in winter and drought conditions. Native plants to Missouri are able to withstand variation in water temperature due to the natural changes in seasons. Plants that are native to locations where there is a large amount of rain will quickly dry up and die during years with less rain.
Using these plants in landscaping will also help support the life of native animals. Hummingbirds are attracted to the native Trumpet Creeper. The American Basswood supplies nectar for bees while American Holly provides food and a place for birds to nest. The color of plants, such as the blue-black fruit of Arrowwood, attracts birds and other wildlife. Growing what is native to Missouri will continue to preserve the ecosystem dependent on these plants.

For additional information on buying native plants visit Grow Native! by the Missouri Prairie Foundation at

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Molly Eye-Winker

These brightly colored discs are a type of fungus known as an eye-lash mushroom belonging to the family Pyronoemataceae. Fungus in this family are saprophytic  which basically means they gain their nutrients from other sources, such as from  rotting logs, stumps, damp soil, wet leaves or even ashes. With optimum conditions these fungus will thrive and grow. They are often found in clusters, like pictured above. The tiny black "lashes" are visible under a magnifying glass, but are difficult to see with the naked eye. I had never seen this species before and it wasn't until I took the pictures off the camera and looked at them on the computer that I noticed the lashes. These are charming, colorful albeit tiny mushrooms with no culinary value. There are reports that claim they are inedible, still others claim they are edible, either way they would lack any real interest in the culinary world as they lack an flavor, odor or texture.

 These little fungus' are found nearly Worldwide; in North America they are more commonly found in winter and spring. Look for them in damp areas on logs and stumps. They are extremely tiny, measuring up to 1/2 inch in diameter. If it weren't for the bright orange-red coloration they would most likely go unseen.
The underside and edges are brown and the lashes are black. The cup is smooth and may vary in color from bright red, to reddish-orange.

The ones photographed here were photographed at Honey Creek Conservation Area in Andrew County, MO. We had a wonderful warm, damp winter that was conducive to a lot of fungus growth. The morels arrived early with the first ones found March 17th. By the first of April here in NW Missouri the morel season was over which is unheard of around here, typically it is just beginning at that time.

 I found numerous other species I've never seen before this year and will be posting them here periodically. This one is perhaps my all time favorite of the new varieties I found. When spring gave way to summer we had already been without rain for weeks and headed into what looked to be a drought. We are midway through August now, and it has been the hottest, driest summer since the 1930's. Where I live we've had about an inch of rain in 10 weeks. Most any living plant has died, trees began losing their leaves a couple of weeks ago. I believe we will see and early fall. With all this dry, hot weather there have been no interesting fungus to photograph this summer. I am hoping that once fall does arrive we will get some rain with it.  Perhaps with the return of rain, the fungus will follow. I know the rest of us will sure appreciate some much needed rain.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hoary Mountain Mint

Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) is a native herbaceous plant Native to Eastern North America as far west as Tennessee and Illinois. The genus name Pycnanthemum means "dense flower-clusters" in Greek. This perennial is in the mint family and grows up to 6 feet in height. The tiny pale lavender blooms appear from July to September and are favored by butterflies, bees and other nectar loving insects. The stems are covered in a white downy substances and the leaves appear frosted. In Vermont and New Hampshire this plant is listed as endangered and efforts are in place to monitor that last remaining locations within these two states. It is also listed as endangered in Ontario where there is only two remaining locations known for this species in oak savannas in Burlington. In other areas where this plant occurs it can often become invasive and spreads by rhizomes. It is predominantly found in woods, thickets, open fields and along hills. It is presumed that it earned its common name of Mountain Mint from its preferred habitat of hill ground. 

As with other plants in the mint family it is often used in teas. When crushed this plant gives off a strong aroma. Mountain Mint contains tannin which is often used as an astringent. 

The Choctaw put the mashed leaves in warm water, which the patient drank, and which was poured over the head to relieve headaches. For patients who were sickly all the time, the leaves were mashed in water, the doctor took a mouthful of water, and blew it onto the patient, three times on the head, three times on the back, and three times on the chest. Before the next sunrise, the patient was bathed in the medicine.*

The Koasati mashed the leaves in water, and used the water to treat laziness. The patient bathed his face in the cold water and drank it. For nosebleeds, the plant was wetted, and put up into the nostrils to stop the bleed. The roots were boiled along with Black Willow, and drunk to relieve headache.*


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This beautiful bird is a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). They are medium sized woodpeckers that can be found throughout most of the eastern United States and Southern Canada. They breed in the northeastern United States and parts of southern Canada, although they are found as far south as Florida.

The name red-bellied is a bit of a misnomer, as they do not have a red belly at all, in fact their belly is more of a buff color with a slight tinge of pink that is well hidden and difficult to see. Their head and body is light gray and their back and wing feathers are black and white in a Ladder-like pattern. Like all woodpeckers they have two toes on the front and two toes on the back of each foot which allows them to grip the trees they climb around on. Males have red on their head that extends from the nape of the neck to the bill. The female has less red. The one pictured here is a female. Their bodies measure 9 to 10 inches in length with a wingspan up to 18 inches.

Woodpeckers mainly eat insects that they find in the cracks of tree trunks or by drilling their beak into the bark of trees and removing bugs hiding there. They will also eat suet, sunflower seeds, nuts and some berries if provided. They will sometimes wedge larger nuts into the bark of trees and break it down into smaller more manageable pieces with their beak. They will also store nuts and berries in old fence posts to eat at a later date. This is a trait they share with other species of woodpeckers. A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. It could be described as similar to velcro....the tongue flicks out and sticks to whatever it is trying to capture.  Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.

Red-bellieds are loud, raucous birds that make numerous vocalizations. I often describe the song as that of a monkey yelling in the trees. So if you are out hiking and hear something that sounds like a monkey and you don't live in the tropics, chances are it is a woodpecker.

A couple of weeks ago my daughter came home to find a red-bellied woodpecker on the front porch near the door. It had flown into the window glass on the door and was stunned. I had her place it in a cardboard shoebox and put it in her bedroom in the dark. We left for about an hour and ran some errands. When we came back to check on the bird, I had her take the box outside before opening it. As soon as she took the lid off the woodpecker flew out and to the tree halfway across the yard. She seemed all recovered from her experience.

Shaylyn holding the bird right after it crashed into the window.

Beautiful back pattern 

 This woodpecker lived up to its nature by trying to peck its way out of the box it was in.

This species prefers deciduous woodlands to nest in and will use old maple, elm and other softer wood to excavate nesting holes in. They will drill smaller holes around the nesting site to discourage other woodpeckers from moving into their territory. This species is secure in their numbers, but rely heavily on deciduous forests, so those areas that are deforested will have very few to no nesting woodpeckers. They will occasionally use backyard trees to nest in, but not with any regular occurrence. Starlings are competition for these woodpeckers and more than half of all nests will be invaded by starlings. Males will seek out the nesting sites and will tap its beak to attract a female. Any females in the area that hear his tapping will come to check it out. If the female is receptive to his technique she will in turn tap softly in response. She will then help him put the finishing touches on the nest.

Occasionally you may spot a Red-bellied Woodpecker flying quickly and erratically through the forest, then it will suddenly change direction, landing for a moment and rapidly take off again keeping up a quick chatter of calls. Scientists document this odd behavior as a type of play that probably helps young birds practice the evasive movements they may one day need.resources in one area.

These birds are often preyed upon by Cooper's Hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and snakes. House cats are also a huge problem for these birds as well as other backyard birds. Other woodpeckers such as pileated woodpeckers, and red-headed woodpeckers as well as owls, and snakes will kill the nestlings.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Witches Butter

While hiking last week with a school group we came across this bright yellow fungus growing on a rotting log. I had no idea what it was and was determined before the day was over I would no its identity.
I searched through several mushroom books and located it in a book written by Maxine Stone on Missouri's mushrooms. It is called Witches Butter (Tremella mesenterica) and is a type of jelly fungus. It is a common fungus associated with mixed deciduous hardwood forests. It is most frequently found in the cracks and crevices of newly fallen limbs., Right after a rainfall is a good time to spot this beautiful, small jelly-like mushroom. Within a few days of emerging it will dry and form a film on the log where it was found. If it rains again the fungus will revive and bloom again. It has a very slimy texture and lives up to its name of Jelly fungus. I love the common name of Witches butter, as I find it a fanciful and mythical name. You can almost picture a couple little witched sitting in the woodlands spreading "witches butter" on their toast over their morning tea time. This fungus does go by other equally fantastic names such as yellow brain, golden jelly fungus, and yellow trembler (because it trembles at the merest touch).

This fungus is found year around and may be seen during winter thaws or during mild winters like we experienced this past season. It may range in color from bright yellow to pale yellow. It is reported to be edible, but has no real discernible taste. It is used to add texture to soups and stews.

The snail in the following picture seemed fond of it however. Any self respecting snail or slug will not turn down a tasty mushroom dinner.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Striped skunk sprint

At the encouragement of a friend of mine I am retelling the story of the little skunk pictured here. A few years ago I was visiting a farm with my husband that his parents own. We were driving across the pond dam when I noticed a skunk in the field. I hurriedly told my husband, Joey, to stop the truck so I could run down into the field and take a picture. I made it into the field and the skunk did not see me. I figured this situation was off to a good start. I crept closer and kept snapping pictures. Again the skunk paid no attention to me. So I took this as a good sign and tip-toed closer. I knew I was skating on thin ice (figuratively speaking) and that this situation could get ugly, or at the very least stinky any second. By now I was about 20 feet away, and this apparently was a tad bit beyond the skunks comfort zone. She lunged forward onto her front feet and began dancing and stomping. I thought that was the cutest thing I'd ever seen, so naturally I had to get closer. Then I hear the voice of reason coming from the top of the pond dam...."If you get sprayed you are walking home!"

I persisted and went a little closer to the skunk, this was probably not the smartest thing I could have was DEFINITELY not the smartest thing I could have done. It reared back on its hind legs and stomped onto its front legs...not once.....but twice. I was clearly being warned. Did I listen? Nope. I walked a bit closer, and by now I was about 15 feet away and well within the distance needed to get sprayed. It was at this point that this skunk did something ran at me! It startled me so much I turned tail and ran looking over my shoulder the entire time. This skunk was hot on my tail and was literally chasing me back where I came from....all the way to the pickup.  I once again hear the voice of reason at the top of the pond dam......"RUN...faster...RUN!" As if he needed to tell me that!!!! You NEVER saw an old woman run so fast!

I made it to the truck unscathed and not wearing Ode' to Skunk. I jumped in the truck and looked out the window. I saw the skunk walk along the pond dam. I was curious once again and I got out of the truck and followed her, this time from a safe distance that did not invade her space. She began digging in earnest and disappeared underground. We came to the conclusion she had babies and this was her den. All the fancy foot work and the sprint race up the hill was all in an effort to keep her babies safe and to warn me away.

She had ample opportunity to spray me, and chose not to. If you are ever outside and come across a skunk, if they start dancing around, you better start running in the other direction. You are either about to be sprayed or chased, and trust me you WILL run with one of these little stink bombs coming after you.