Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sourwoods, Maples and Milkweed Bugs

Fall finally arrived in late October. Some of the trees show evidence of drought but I still find quite a bit of color.

The foliage of Sourwood trees first turns orange and then maroon--true Hokie colors (I was a professor at Virginia Tech and longtime football fan). Some trees started turning early in September, with their leaves already dropped.

But, those in the forest, tucked under the hickory and oak trees are in full color this past week (photo October 20)

Most sourwood trees have turned maroon by the end of October (photo October 27).

The sourwood trees bloom in late June through the end of July. Last month, I bought sourwood honey from a local beekeeper about 5 miles from where we live. I wondered if some of his bees came to our land to collect nectar this summer.

For a long time, I tried to identify the maple trees on our land. Finally, I collected leaves of two different trees and laid them side by side.

The red maple, on the left, has coarsely toothed edges while the sugar maple, on the right, has smooth edges. Now, I can distinguish them easily and realize we have a lot more sugar maples than red maples.

I have enjoyed watching milkweed bugs which I never noticed until Suzie Leslie, master naturalist, brought them to my attention recently.

First, they're small bright orange spots on the milkweed pods (photo taken September 22).

The bugs molt several times to become large milkweed bugs in late October.

Milkweed bugs eat the seeds which by this time are ready to take flight when a good breeze comes along.

Nature is a great source for inspiration--like this pattern of milkweed seeds which would make a great design for a printed fabric or embroidery.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

My Big Tree

Once again, it is sunny, a little warmer than last week (making it to 80 degrees), with cool nights. That would be great except that it is still dry. We have had only about 7 inches of rain all year. It’s saddens me to see the leaves wilt rather than turn their beautiful fall colors.

Last week, I participated in a “Big Tree” training session conducted by Jeff Kirwan, extension forester, and head of the Virginia Big Tree Program. Also attending was a master naturalist from another county and a forester from Blacksburg. Our first task was to find a large blue spruce that was measured in 1987. Jeff had a photo and some directions—about 2 miles east of Pembroke. The photo showed a brick chimney and the report mentioned an abandoned brick house. I remembered the house which had been demolished because it had burned in the 90s. The house was reportedly shot up by Union soldiers as they retreated over Salt Pond Mountain, now most famous for Mountain Lake Hotel where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed.

We found the spruce quickly and set about measuring the circumference (82”) and crown spread (28’) with a measuring tape. We then walked 100 feet from the tree to calculate the height (84’) with a cool instrument called a clinometer.

We used the following formula to determine the tree's total points:

Trunk Circumference + Height + ¼ Average Crown Spread = Total Points

The blue spruce (Picea pungens) comes in at 173 points—a state champion! My photo was used on the Big Tree’s website:

Perhaps because I am listed as the contact person, I feel a strong connection to this tree. I know it’s not native and it’s not really that pretty (especially with the brown foliage in front which was sprayed with herbicide by the highway department). Nonetheless, I feel responsible and hope that the landowners and Giles County will work to protect this state champion.

After our blue spruce finding, we hiked the Cascades trail. I bailed out before Jeff and Keith found the other 2 trees on our list. On the hike back, I spotted a bird that was new to me, a Blackburnian Warbler.

Gypsy moth egg masses were on almost every oak tree. I am still hoping our woods (only about 5 miles away) will escape the relentless assault of these alien insects brought here by a well-meaning American entomologist over a century ago.