Saturday, August 29, 2009

Winterberry Farm in August

I am back "home" at Winterberry Farm for a few days, visiting family, celebrating my mother's 88th birthday (who has recovered marvelously from her femur fracture in March and is stronger now than before the fall), and helping with late summer yard work.

At dawn, before anyone else is stirring in the house, after the coffee is brewing, Bella and I wander down the field roads and woodland trail to the "back forty." In these last days of August the gray birches are turning yellow, the wild and invasive shrubs and vines are laden with fruit, and the summer crops are giving way to the hardy fall crops.

Families of songbirds forage in the fields, and shrubs, and wetland edges, preparing for fall flight. Four young of the year barn swallows sit side-by-side on a thin branch a few feet above the water, as mother swallow swoops in with an insect for one of her young, their mouths wide open. A gorgeous coyote, with a thick gray-brown coat and long bushy black-tipped tail, hunts for mice and voles among tall goldenrod, queen-anne's-lace, and grasses.

The farmers, interns, and volunteers have toiled all summer to grow food for Brookfield Farm, a CSA that leases some of our land. The fruits of their labor are visible in every field.

The storage onions, large and firm,
are pushing up through the soil.

Small, orange pumpkins emerge as the vines wither.

Entire fields replanted with fall crops of Brussels sprouts,
red and green cabbages.

In the thickets around the fields,
wild common elderberries (Sambucus canadensis)
droop with dark purple berries.

Wild apples are red and crisp and sour.

The invasive shrubs are also laden with fruit.
Autumn olive (Elaegnus umbellata)
with stems dripping in bright fruit
call out for fruit-eating birds and mammals.

My sister Amy has grown amazing garlic for several years on Winterberry Farm. Planted last October, pulled from the ground in July to dry for a month or more, this weekend we trimmed and sorted. More than 350 bulbs! One hundred (with 5-6 large cloves in each bulb) of the biggest were saved for planting the next crop. I have a bag of 100 bulbs to take home for cooking in the coming year. This is farm gold!

Monday, August 24, 2009


Albinism is an inherited condition that affects the production of the pigment, melanin. People or other animals with albinism have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin, and hair. A cell called melanocyte produces the pigment; these cells are present in people with albinism, but a genetic mutation interferes with the production or distribution of melanin.

We recognize people with albinism by their snow white hair, light skin, and pale pinkish blue eyes. In some cultures, particularly in East Africa, albinistic people are treated as outcasts and worse. Our neighbors next door have two children with albinism. Despite the stigma that popular culture attaches to this condition, these kids have the most fun outdoors of any kids in our neighborhood. They swim, kayak, bike, and otherwise play outside all summer long. Far from thinking of their condition as a disease or disorder, their appearance has no bearing on their outlook on life, as far as we can tell.

There are no major health concerns associated with albinism, except for apparently an increased risk of skin cancer and some potential vision problems. The melanocytes produce something akin to umbrellas in our skin, protecting us from ultraviolet radiation. Lacking these internal "umbrellas" albinistic people require extra care out in the sun. We all should take more care in the sun.

My nephew-in-law Sid sent the following photos that he took of an albinistic cobra in southern India. The patterns are stunning on a cobra anyway and this one is especially beautiful. Note the pink eyes. The redness comes from light entering the pupil and reflecting off the blood vessels in the retina. Typically the pupil appears black because pigment molecules in the retina absorb light entering the eye, preventing it from reflecting back out.

There is some thought that animals with albinism may be more visible to predators or prey, and hence have a shorter lifespan. I was not able to confirm that in a quick online search. Some predators may not notice an albinistic prey because their search image may be for a brown animal not a white animal. Many different animals can produce albinistic offspring, but just seeing an animal that is white does not mean that it has albinism. Some other mutations can cause patches of hair or skin to lack pigment. Regardless, they are striking, and are often treated differently.

Our neighbor kids have shown us that their "differences" are quite normal!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cool Rivers

This week the heat is sizzling and I am sure many, many, too many for me, people are at the beach. Call me odd, but lying under a hot sun at the seashore along with hoards of other people is the last place I want to be when it is really hot. You come away sunburned, sticky from the salt, bitten by huge greenhead flies, cranky from the traffic, and not really cooled off. Okay, the surfing looks fun.

During the dog days of summer I seek cool, inland rivers and lakes. I've always preferred freshwater for recreating. Maybe it stems from our family camping trips to Moosehead Lake in Maine, Hapgood Pond in Vermont, and that I learned (sort of) to swim in a lake near our home. We never made family trips to the beach. Instead we camped, canoed, hiked, looked for moose and loons, and generally splashed around in cool, fresh water. And is there a better place on earth than the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota?!

Although the tides are interesting and create neat habitats, I can't be bothered about tying up boats so they aren't left high and dry when the tide goes out. And there is the not so small dilemma of sea level rise. As with many places (such as California!) I like to visit on occasion and at certain times of year (the beach in winter), but I prefer not to live too close.

As others were no doubt elbowing for beach space this week, I headed inland to the Isinglass River. With some colleagues and Bella, I walked along the hemlock-shaded cool shoreline watching dragonflies dance above the flowing water and lingered by the brilliant cardinal flowers.

By the time we finished our walk along the Isinglass the sun was overhead, but the cool air along the river stayed with me. As we returned to the cars along Pig Lane, an old gravel road, we quenched our thirst and appetite with some sweet-tasting, wild-growing blackberries. I drove home with the windows down and not a bit of traffic to lose my cool.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Today we drove two hours to the western side of New Hampshire along the Connecticut River to tour the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. A tip of the hat to the National Park Service for their fine stewardship and interpretation of this lovely 150-acre public site tucked away in Cornish, New Hampshire. We met there for a picnic lunch with family from Massachusetts and Vermont, each of us about equi-distant from Saint-Gaudens. Somewhat by coincidence this was a fee-free weekend here and at many other National Parks and Monuments. The Friends of Saint-Gaudens also hosted a free afternoon concert featuring a brass quintet.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is considered one of the greatest American sculptors and many of his works are on display here at Saint-Gaudens. You can tour his home, gardens, studios, and grounds, which were donated to the National Park Service in 1965. Augustus named the estate Aspet, after the place of his father's birth in France. Today the entrance to the home is graced by a massive 123-year old honey locust, planted in 1886 before Saint-Gaudens lived here.

The grounds around the home are separated into outdoor "rooms" by well-manicured tall hedges. You can seclude yourself in the cutting garden, or wander through the stable and ice house, admire the formal perennial gardens, cool off in the air-conditioned visitor's center while watching a short film about the sculptor, peer into the reflecting pool and wander through the gallery of his sculptures.

The formal perennial garden

Adams Memorial, a commission by historian Henry Adams
for his wife Clover. Saint-Gaudens called it
"The Mystery of the Hereafter... beyond pain and beyond joy."

The reflecting pool

Set against a tall hedgerow, the 11 foot by 16 foot Shaw Memorial may be one of the best known sculptures by Saint-Gaudens. He spent 14 years working on the original version of this monument to Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment that Shaw led. The 54th was the first African American unit from the north to fight for the Union during the Civil War. The 1989 movie Glory depicts Shaw and the actions of the 54th Regiment. The final version of this sculpture completed by Augustus in 1900 is the one on display here in Cornish.

Saint-Gaudens was lovely even in the heat and humidity of a mid-August day. With all the fuss over what government can and can not do, the national park system is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of our country. These public places preserve natural and cultural beauty for everyone to enjoy and admire. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable; the facilities clean and accessible; and at Saint-Gaudens dogs are welcome (on leash).

We will return to see and learn more as the few hours spent today were not enough. We did not have time to hike the Ravine and Blow-Me-Down Trails, or visit the temple, or fully study each of the sculptures. There are many paths to walk at Saint-Gaudens with something different to see around each hedgerow.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Buttonbush and Brasenia

Not long ago we discovered a new trail that starts in our town and ends in the next. The Sweet Trail winds around and over hills, past large boulders, under tall white pines and red oaks, and near dozens of wetlands. This trail has become a favorite place to spend an hour or so each day.

The wetlands are crowded with life -- frogs and more frogs (this is a frog year), green herons (a good frog year means a good heron year and then a not so good year for some frogs), wood ducks and geese, and dense vegetation. The beaver are in there somewhere too, keeping the water levels up.

A couple plants caught my eye this week as we've hiked short stretches of the Sweet Trail.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is in bloom, its small white flowers form a one inch round ball that looks more like a pincushion than a button. The stamens stick out like pins beyond the white petals.

The balls of young buds are smaller and green.

The buttonbush leaves are opposite or in whorls of threes. Note the red trigs of new growth. This shrub grows along wetland edges and out in shallow waters.

Another prominent wetland plant is watershield or Brasenia schreberi. Walking by a freshwater wetland such as these beaver ponds, one might mistake watershield for a young water lily or even algae since it covers much of the water surface. But it is neither. Watershield is in the water lily family, but it is alone in its Genus Brasenia.

The leaves are distinct from water lilies in several ways. They are shaped like a canoe, pointed at both ends. The leaf is entire with no slit, whereas the yellow pond lily and white water lily have large leaves with a slit.

The leaf is green on top and maroon or purplish below. The submerged stem attaches to the center of the leaf from below. The stem and underside of the leaf are covered in a jelly-like substance. Makes it slippery to handle. Small reddish flowers poke up above the leaves.

One particular leaf caught my eye. Do you notice it in the picture above or below?

There it is, trying to imitate a fish!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Witch Hazel

The most common understory shrub (or small tree) in our southern New Hampshire woods is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It grows in the shade beneath a canopy of oaks and pines. And yet like all plants its branches stretch toward small gaps of light, creating a vase-like arching growth form.

The oval leaves have scalloped edges. About now the branches sport half inch long, tan, woody capsules. These mature in late summer and early fall when they suddenly burst open to release two small black seeds with such a force that they can land up to 30 feet away. The old capsules, as you can see below, persist on the branch into the next season.

When the leaves turn a golden yellow in the fall, the flowers appear. The yellow flowers have four streamer-like petals. Odd in their appearance and in their timing, Native Americans called this plant "winterbloom."

At any time of year it is an interesting plant to see as you walk through the woods, breathing in the refreshing wood air.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Local Food

The days are getting shorter just when it seems that summer has finally arrived. Last night we enjoyed a meal with friends of locally grown vegetables -- grilled eggplant and zucchini, tomato and cucumber salad with fresh basil, sauteed green beans with garlic, and some local grass-fed beef. Some of the fresh produce was plucked from our garden, the rest was from our farmer friends at New Roots Farm just up the road. We ate outside on the deck, the cool evening kept most of the mosquitoes at bay.

Most of the vegetables in our own garden started as seedlings from New Roots Farm. And this is part of the story of the 2009 gardening/farming season. Late blight (a fungus on tomatoes and potatoes) continues to devastate these crops in the Northeast. Alas, I just found it on one of our tomato plants today, and that plant is now in the trash can. It seems that many more people this year became backyard gardeners and many of these folks bought seedlings at the big box stores. The origin of late blight in this region has been linked to sales of infected seedlings to these stores.

As many of us are turning more and more to farmer's markets, local farm stands, community supported agriculture, and more backyard gardens, the source of our seeds and seedlings is just as important as the source of the fresh produce. It will cost more, but buying seedlings grown locally, and even better, from a farmer you know, can help prevent the widespread distribution of garden pests such as late blight.

Our local organic farmers were hit hard this year. The late blight came on top of a very late season. Farming at this scale is hard work. Our farmer friends feel that fewer people are coming to markets this year and are balking at some of the prices. We need to help farmers in good times and bad. If we don't continue to buy their produce when prices are high due to weather, pests, or other events, then they can't continue to farm. They work hard every day during the growing season for very little money.

This orange blossom tomato plant that grows on our deck is from New Roots Farm. So far, we've enjoyed three delicious tomatoes from the plant. They seem more precious than ever. It was the plant in the pot next to this one that landed in the trash today, so I am not certain we'll have the orange blossom around for long.

The late blight has now infected the potato plants on local farms. To help salvage the crop they've cut all the vegetative tops off the plants. If this does not prevent further infection to the tubers then the entire crop will be lost. Organic potatoes and tomatoes will be scarce and expensive this fall. Let's continue to support the farmers by buying as much as we can from them. Their spirits are buoyed by people coming to the markets and buying their produce. If they go home with too much unsold, it makes for a sobering next day on the farm.

Here's to the rest of summer and plenty of fresh picked food on the table.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sweet Pepperbush

The intense fragrance of the sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) was even more intense today, with the air thick and still. The small, sweet-smelling white flowers, with five petals, are borne on a raceme.
Sweet pepperbush is a native shrub that grows from Maine to Florida on river floodplains, streambanks, and wetland edges. I find it likes sandy soils and doesn't like its feet wet all the time, so more commonly occurs higher up on the shoreline. It forms a thicket, and in this spot grows in a band along the upper banks of the Lamprey River. Sweet pepperbush grows to 6 to 9 feet tall and has a rounded, well shrubby, growth form.

Its name, also called summer sweet or white alder, comes from its sweet fragrance and its peppercorn-like fruit. The fruit especially resembles a black peppercorn after it dries. The "dry, dehiscent, five-valved capsules" persist well into winter and through to the next growing season. The fruit capsules suddenly open (in the fall) and release their seeds, thus the term dehiscent (gotta love the botanical terms).

The leaves are also unique. Somewhat wedge-shaped, widest toward the tip, but then narrows again to a point. The leaf is serrated or toothed from the middle to the tip and untoothed at the base.

If you are looking for a native shrub to revegetate a shoreline or to plant around a lakeside cabin, this is a great choice. The butterflies and bees will appreciate the sweet-smelling and long-blooming sweet pepperbush in your yard.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Yesterday I found another parasitic plant pushing up through the leaf litter beneath a scrappy white pine. Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) is related to Indian pipe, which I noted last week is popping up everywhere.

Pinesap has a yellowish color, unlike the ghostly white of Indian pipe. Also, pinesap has many flowers (3-10) on its nodding "pipe," while Indian pipe bears only one flower.

The two plants are similar in their lack of chlorophyll and lack of photosynthetic abilities. Instead they sustain a parastic life by feeding off the roots of fungi. Earlier I wrote about another non-photosynthesizer, the uncommon cancer-root. The latter plant prefers rich soils, whereas of the three parasitic plants, the pinesap seems to occur in poor, acidic soils beneath oaks and pines. Note the poison ivy in front of the pinesap, usually an indication of a disturbed site with relatively poor soils.

The pinesap, Indian pipe, and cancer-root are all somewhat fleshy like fungi, so they may be mistaken for such. However they are all flowering plants, producing flowers and seeds, whereas fungi reproduce by spores and are in their own separate Kingdom from plants. With all the rain this summer I expect a profusion of fungi in the coming weeks.

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