A Fruitful Year

Some years are more fruitful than others.  Last year was one of those years.  From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket.  I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.

But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.


Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)

Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover.  Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard.  Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard.  Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts.  Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.

The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops.  I did most of the picking.  Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries.  Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown.  While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me.  Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.

With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs.  No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy.  I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.

Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive.  So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April.  On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June.  Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.

chipmunk with red elderberries

chipmunk with red elderberries

The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that  are even more popular wildlife food.  By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.

Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit.  “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes.  But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps.  Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.

Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field.  But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen.  Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black.  Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree.  He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.

Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family?  They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting.  Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.

I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it.  But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site.  It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual.  Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off.  I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings.  One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.

That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance.  Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest.  At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.

Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries.  The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.

In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion.  Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings.  Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.

A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September.  Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil.  Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.”  Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.

Solomons plume (AKA false Solomons seal) in berry

Solomon's plume (AKA false Solomon's seal) in berry

Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also.  In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems.  A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal.  Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries.  Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.

But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring.  No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.
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All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.

Flowering Trees of Spring

Last spring was wonderful for those of us who admire the blossoms of deciduous forest trees. The heat wave at the end of March brought out many flowering trees two weeks earlier than usual. Continual cold throughout April and early May kept them in their blossoming stage for weeks instead of days which gave me plenty of time to admire what is normally only a brief phenomenon.

First to bloom were the red maple trees, Acer rubrum. On March 29 they were covered with red or orange flowers or sometimes both, growing in dense clusters along the branches. The showier flowers are the deep red male or staminate flowers that feature long scarlet stamens while the pistillate or female flowers are often orange and yellow. Their sweet odor draws in the early pollinating insects even on the coolest days.

As the deep crimson, opening leaves appeared, the blossoms also deepened in color. Two weeks later they were replaced by dangling, wine-red, green-stemmed, V-shaped, twin fruits which turned the trees into autumnal-like torches. Never had I seen such a burden of maple keys, but I assumed that the unseasonably warm weather during blossoming time had attracted more pollinating insects than usual.

Three days after the first red maples blossomed, they served as a backdrop for the best and longest display of flowering shadbush that I can remember. Every tree was enveloped in a cloud of drooping, long-petaled, white blossoms, and we discovered that we had dozens of this showy, small tree along our trails.

Black Gum Trail, which winds through the mature deciduous forest on Laurel Ridge, was especially beautiful so I devoted one morning–April 10–to celebrating its display of shadbush. I found many trees of all shapes and sizes with blossoms at all stages of development from just-opened to past their prime and already leafing out.

Those leaves were a bronzed, purplish-brown color, which makes the shadbush on our mountain Amelanchier laevis, or smooth shadbush, according to William Carey Grimm’s The Trees of Pennsylvania. This species grows throughout our state, particularly in the mountains. Amelanchier canadensis, the most common shadbush in the commonwealth, has pale greenish young leaves covered with long, pale, silky hairs.

Shadbush, so-named because it blooms the same time that shad returns to eastern coastal rivers from the sea, is also called “serviceberry,” “sarviss,” or “sarvissberry.” Some experts say that is because it bloomed when the first circuit preachers were able to reach the backwoods settlements in early spring to hold church services.

But naturalist/writer Donald Culross Peattie disagrees. In his A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, he claims that “sarviss” is Elizabethan English for the Latin word “sorbus” given to a fruit that closely resembles that of “sarvissberry.”

The fruit of shadbush gives it still other names–“Juneberry” and “shadberry”–for the dark purple fruits that appear in June. They are so relished by 50 species of birds such as cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse, and bluebirds, as well as bears, deer, raccoons, foxes, opossums, and other fruit-eating mammals, that I have yet to find one berry on our mountain. But during a late June trip to West Virginia, I tasted my first serviceberry. No doubt it was A. canadensis, which is not as tasty as A.laevis because it was bland.

Native Americans picked and dried the berries of all four species of shadbush that grow in Pennsylvania. They were also sold in Philadelphia’s markets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pennsylvania wild food guru, the late Euell Gibbons, specialized in making shadbush pies, muffins and sauce, and canning, freezing and drying the berries for later use.

But it is for their dainty, star-like flowers that I celebrate these trees, blooming, as they do, while most of the forest still wears its gray winter coat.

On the same day the first shadbush bloomed–April 2–the wild black cherry trees began to leaf out. Unlike the red maples and shadbush, the cherry trees (Prunus serotina) send out their shiny, green leaves before their sprays of white flowers so that it is difficult to see them on the trees. But usually the forest is permeated with the cloying odor of them in late April, a signal to me that the cherry trees are in flower. Furthermore, they produce an abundance of blossoms, many of which are jettisoned during storms, which gives me a close-up look at them. Later, in August or early September, the keening cries of cedar waxwings are a signal that the cherries are ripe. Then the forest floor is covered with purple-black fruits, providing a feast for wild animals and birds on Sapsucker Ridge where our mature black cherry forest grows.

I always find piles of bear scat stuffed with cherry pits beneath the trees but have not yet caught the bears eating cherries. That may be just as well because Peattie claims that years ago, when bears were plentiful in the Appalachians (Peattie was writing back in the 1940s when bears had almost disappeared from most of the area)…”The ripening of the cherry crop was a signal for an ursine congregation. The cubs of the year learned to climb the trees by following their mothers up them to reap the wild cherry harvest. ‘Cherry bears’ were considered especially mettlesome and best left strictly alone.”

Humans, too, once appreciated the fruit. Also known as “rum” or “whisky cherry” trees, Appalachian pioneers made a drink called cherry bounce from the cherry juice. The most famous Appalachian pioneer of all–Daniel Boone–found a more morbid use for the trees. The wood makes splendid caskets and, as an old man, he built several of them to sleep in. He gave away all but his last one to poor people who needed a final resting place.

The flowering dogwood trees (Cornus florida) were also splendid last spring. Their first flowers appeared along Greenbrier Trail on April 14, while the shadbush was still in bloom, and lasted well into May. The white petals that we admire are really modified leaves surrounding the true greenish bunch of small, tubular flowers in the middle. Those leaves, called “bracts,” are signals to pollinating insects that the green flowers contain nectar.

The dogwood put on their best show over on our seven-year-old clearcut. A parade of white trees spilled down over what we formerly called Clearcut Knoll and hastily renamed Dogwood Knoll.

Luckily the loggers could think of nothing to do with them and so most of the dogwoods, along with the crooked, maimed, or otherwise worthless trees and shrubs, such as witch hazel, on what was then the logger’s property, were not cut.

But Native Americans once made a red dye from dogwood roots that they used to color bald eagle feathers and porcupine quills, and during the Civil War tea brewed from the roots was given to the soldiers of the Confederacy as a substitute for quinine to fight malaria.

The black birch trees also blossomed by mid-April. Three-to-four-inch long catkins, covered with purplish-yellow male blossoms, dangle from the branches while one-half inch to one-inch-long, erect, stalkless, female catkins covered with pale green blossoms grow upright on the same tree branches with the male blossoms.

Black birch trees (Betula lenta) are also called “cherry birches” because their bark looks like the mahogany red bark of cherry trees and “sweet birches” because of their sweet sap from which birch beer is brewed. Wintergreen oil was once extracted from their bark by country dwellers, who wastefully chopped down 100 cherry saplings into chips to make one quart of the oil. Today wintergreen oil is manufactured synthetically from wood alcohol and salicylic acid, but a foolproof way to distinguish black birch branches from black cherry branches is to scrape the bark from a small branch and sniff. The wintergreeen odor is always detectable.

By April 17 oak trees of all species–red, white, black and chestnut–were in tender leaf, dangling their long, stringy, fringe-like, male catkins from the same new shoots as the few-flower clusters of stalked, yellow, female flowers. Each grows from the axils of emerging leaves. Sitting under my favorite, 200 year-old white oak tree after a storm, I found scores of the shoots on the ground covered with small, downy, greenish-gold white oak leaves and their attendant greenish-gold male flowers.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are my favorite oak species, a species which Peattie calls the “king of kings… The fortunate possessor of an old white oak owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade and greenery and leafy music.” I often sit below my “outdoor mansion” and watch the antics of chipmunks and squirrels and even raccoons and deer on occasion. Its huge trunk has several crevices that perfectly fit my back so that it is indeed a “sort of second home.”

So many trees blossomed abundantly last spring that even those that I had never noticed before, such as a black haw growing on top of the rocky bank beside the Far Field Road, put on a show. Heads of creamy flowers covered this small member of the Viburnum genus–Viburnum prunifolium. Also called “stagbush,” “nannyberry,” “sheepberry,” and “sweet haw,” its sugary fruits are favorites of many birds and mammals. After identifying it and adding it to our list of trees for our property, I wondered if I had merely overlooked it in previous springs or whether it was blossoming for the first time.

Another understory tree, one that blankets the forest floor in the black cherry forest, is the striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). Unlike red maples, striped maples unfurl dazzling-bright, shiny green leaves before producing four-to-six-inch long strings of drooping, brilliant yellow, showy, bell-like flowers. Male and female flowers usually grow in different clusters on the same tree and the male flowers are slightly more showy than the females’.

I’ve always thought of striped maples as the easiest of all trees to identify no matter what the season. The “striped” refers to their green bark which breaks as their stems expand, revealing a white underlayer that gives the bark a striped appearance. One of their alternate names, “goosefoot,” refers to the shape of their leaves, while “moosewood” signals that their bark is favored by moose as well as rabbits, deer and beavers.

It took the warm days of late May to bring out the flowers of tulip and black locust trees. Like striped maples, tulip-tree flowers emerge after the leaves. Cup-shaped, showy, and erect, the yellow, orange and greenish flowers look almost tropical in their lushness. Those blossoms contain both male and female parts, which makes them, in botanical parlance, perfect flowers. It’s easiest to see the flowers on trees growing out in the open, as one does at the edge of the woods near our house. They “hold the sunshine in their cups,” Peattie writes, “setting the whole giant tree alight.”

A member of the Magnolia family, tulip-trees (Liriodendron tulipfera) are the tallest hardwood trees in North America. Pioneers constructed canoes from their trunks, hence their alternate name “canoe wood.” Their nearly white sapwood earned them the sobriquet “whitewood.” Still another name is “popple.” They also earned the distinction, during the gypsy moth onslaught here 18 years ago, as the only tree species whose leaves were not eaten by the ravaging caterpillars.

Tulip-trees have always been favorites of mine because, like striped maples, they are easy to identify by their distinctive, saddle-shaped leaves, tulip-shaped flowers, cone-shaped fruit, and tall, limbless, straight trunks.

But outstripping even the tulip-tree blossoms in beauty last spring were the black locust trees. They put on the best display we have seen in the 27 years we have lived here. Black locusts, Robinia pseudoacacia, are also called “honey locusts” because of their sweet smell that used to draw in droves of honeybees before most of the wild ones were killed off by mites. In fact, locust honey is still a favorite with honey fanciers, and beekeepers always rejoice when the locust flowers are abundant. Their drooping clusters of white, fragrant, pea-like blossoms are also perfect like those of the tulip-trees.

They line the edge of First Field and so for several days we enjoyed their beauty both at a distance and close at hand. As one early naturalist wrote, “It is as if a white cloud rested on the treetop, heavy with perfume and alive with bees. One rarely sees, even in spring, a sight more beautiful. It is the supreme moment in the life of this tree.”

My own supreme moment with the trees last spring occurred at the Far Field which wore a fringe of flowering black locust trees. On a large tree covered with blossoms an indigo bunting sang. As if that blue and white vision were not enough, a male cerulean warbler flew in, singing and foraging for insects among the locust flowers. He flitted from branch to branch for the hour I sat nearby watching, presenting me with the perfect ending to a spring which will forever remain in my memory as a banner year for deciduous tree flowers.