To the Sugar Bush We Go

It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.

Otter tracks on Indian Creek. You never know what you will find in the forest until you go into the forest.

We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.

The small annual hole we bore in the tree does not siphon out enough sap to damage the tree.

We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).

Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.

What goes into a Community Supported Forest?

My friend Shannon just left a sack of bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) seeds on my desk. I know it was her, because how many of my friends know what a bladdernut is, much less that nothing would make me happier? A few years ago, Jerry brought home a pappery husk and asked me what it was. It took me a while to identify, because not only were they lacking from our forest, but as a diminutive understory tree, the bladdernut doesn’t make it in to many of the tree guides. The bladdernut is a delightful understory tree with an edible, if small, nut. We’ve only seen the single grove, a small layer in a larger grove of oaks, in the one location. I couldn’t find any one who sells them to plant at Amazing Space.

Next year, this important little cog will be replanted in the ecosystem, replacing a stand of invasive honeysuckles that currently do nothing more than provide a home for a feral cat and a handful of cowbirds.

in 2017 we planted paw paws (Asimina triloba) from Red Fern Farm. Another species once native, now vanished, will yield a mango-tasting, native fruit in coming years. It was likely originally native a bit south of here, but global warming is with us to stay. Ticks are now still active in February.

There are a handful of butternut (Juglans cinerea) trees on the property, but all are heavily cankered. Another friend, Roger, stratified a handful of nuts we collected in 2016, and started them in the spring. If I can keep the seedlings mulched, watered, and weeded, I can worry less about the species dying out here. And nothing is tastier than a butternut pie.

In years gone by, it took a community to manage and harvest the bounty from the forest. Today, it still takes a community to do the same. We just have better shovels (or on lucky days, PTO-driven augers) for planting seedlings and chainsaws for faster tree cutting. This should leave us plenty of time to enjoy a cup of tea by the fire with friends.

Last April wildflower walk of the year…and a few other beauties

The spring wildflowers are in their second flush, as the wild plums and bloodroot are nearly finished blooming. The warm weather has brought new hues to the forest, in a crescendo of vibrant colors.

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Trillium are in full bloom, adding a deep red to the woodland forest.
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The red oaks rely on wind for pollination, so their pollen is usually viewed as a radiating golden hue in the tree tops. This small branch was brought down in the wind, allowing me to admire the rich color and delicate leaves more closely.
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No true morels, yet. But we found a large patch of these rusty-eared gnarly beauties, with their untraceable folds and delicate ripples.
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The jack in the pulpit’s green on green provides subtle grace and requires a careful look, before the show-stopping red berries in the fall..
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Bellworts add their bright yellow to the edge of the woodland.

Welcoming 2016

Snow has finally arrived. It has transformed the woods into a magical place full of wonder, and on a more practical note, I haven’t seen a tick in a few days. We’ll ring in the New Year quietly in the forest, celebrating the beautiful natural world around us.

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The clouds are forming.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.

 

Waldeinsamkeit

Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.

While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.
While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.

This season has been unusually hectic between Amazing Space (of which I love every moment, it just takes a lot of moments), the construction of the natural amphitheater, preparing the apiary for 2016, and everything else I normally do.

I've never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.
I’ve never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.

For this winter solstice, I opted to take a break and enjoy waldeinsamkeit. It literally translates into woodland solitude, and I find it is a beautiful way to connect with myself, and with the natural world around me. I actually had to visit waldeinsamkeit twice, once during the day and once after dark on the solstice. The warm temperatures, moist air, and clouds skittering across the moon were beckoning me back outside. Since English is based on German, why we didn’t we keep that word?

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The unseasonably warm winter and frequent rains are supporting a prolonged mushroom season in the woods.

 

 

The Saga of the Shinleaf

Having spent years roaming these woods, there are some plants I can identify, a lot more plants I recognize but can’t identify, and every once in a while, there is the sheer, delightful beauty of stumbling across a plant I’ve never even seen before.

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I took a picture (there was only one, so I wasn’t about to pick the plant). And, in this heat, frequently a “real” specimen is a droopy, crumpled mess by the time I get it home, whereas digital photos can be easily shared, magnified and examined. The flower shape and size looked a bit like the non-native lily of the valley, but the leaves and growth patterns were all wrong. There is a false/wild lily of the valley, but that was definitely not it either.

I shared the picture around the office. Sharing is typically, in my opinion, way more fun than keying plants out (which is always Plan B, and a good skill to have!).  A day later, a colleague at Indian Creek Nature Center told me what it was-the shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica).  She had seen it before backpacking up north, where it is far more common. Like orchids, the shinleaf has strong micorrhizal associations, making it difficult to transplant or spread. So this little beauty has been hanging on in the woods here for a long time, and hopefully, as we continue to remove invasive species, it will spread on its own.

The shin leaf takes its name from its traditional medicinal value. Historically it was used as a poultice for bruised shins and other small skin problems, or gargled for sore throats. But, as it is rare here, its value is far greater as a keystone species for the woodlands.

30 Days Wild

A woodland treasure hunt

Random acts of wildness are not something I’m really good at. Oh, I’m all about being in the wild, and my attention is easily diverted by any random thing when outside. Mushroom! Snake! Bat! But my forays beyond my yard tend to be…planned. Dog. Leash. Water for me. Water for dog. Destination selection. Coordinating friends, who all love the idea of wilding away, but, but, but something else is almost always going on. Meanwhile, nature carries on, heedless of my attention or lack thereof. Which is good…

The bloodroot leaves are bigger than my hand.

…because their are treasures to be found. The bloodroot leaves have grown bigger than my hand, and the verdant green provides a backdrop for some of Iowa’s rare treasures.

When I was a kid, I loved the smooth, perfect swells of the orchid blossoms, the way they could grow in the air, and the way they needed perpetual heat and humidity year round. Despite sweltering Midwestern summers, the frigid winters made the landscape inhospitable. I would repeatedly buy ones that “could” live indoors, and I would take them home, where they would never flower and gradually die.

But I was oh-so-wrong about one thing. There are actually 32 species of orchid that live in Iowa, and a woodland treasure hunt this month at the Indian Creek Nature Center revealed two.

Showy orchis
Showy orchis
This is the more rare yellow lady slipper. Because of its beauty, people are tempted to dig them and take them home. Because of their strong underground mycorrhizal associations, they seldom survive transplant-leaving a hole in the woods they came from, as well as a hole in the receiving garden.
Yellow lady slipper

The yellow lady slipper is far more rare than the showy orchis. Because of their beauty, people are tempted to dig them and take them home. Because of their strong underground mycorrhizal associations, they seldom survive transplant-leaving a hole in the woods they came from, as well as a hole in the receiving garden. Not quite The Orchid Thief, but I only found one lady slipper on my walk.  The beautiful rare delicacy of these flowers reminds me that if I just go outside, nature will provide the random wildness.

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30 Days Wild

 

30 Days Wild

Being in Iowa in the springtime is being immersed in a million shades of green unfurling around you.

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Nitro and I started and ended the 30×30 Nature Challenge in the hammock-it has gotten us pumped up about 30 Days Wild.

For 30 Days Wild, engage in a random act of wildness every day with us-you’re only limited by your imagination.

 

Take a walk in the woods, and discover what's blooming in your backyard.
We are starting the 30 Days Wild with a full moon walk, as the fireflies are beginning to dance in the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

Crus-galli Grove

Forests in the not-too distant-past once provided primary sustenance for people, not just the other mammals and the birds. Today, agriculture and urbanization have made that relationship more challenging. The felling of many trees has reduced both the size and species composition of the woods. Forests are increasingly unhealthy, and lack many of the sustenance-providing species they once held. Among the foods we do eat regularly, it is a crop’s harvestability and transportability that have become valued over many other traits. Foods are increasingly single-sourced, and bear little resemblance-including nutritional value-to the myriad of plants on which we once depended.

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This spring, we planted six cockspur hawthorn¹ (Crataegus crus-galli) trees at Indian Creek Nature Center, as part of a woodland restoration project. For restoration purposes, the hawthorns are native trees that only grow about 25 feet tall, easy to overlook when we discuss the grandeur of the mighty oaks and hickories. Yet they provide a lot of ecological benefits, with their thicket-like tendencies that protect young nestlings, blossoms for pollinators, and edible berries for wildlife.

For human guests, the hawthorns² are the latest addition to the native edible forest at the Nature Center. Both the blossoms and berries are good to eat. The trees were planted in a wide circle, forming a grove around one of the maturing oaks. In the not-too-distant future, guests will be able to come, spread a picnic blanket in the semiprivate shade of the grove, listen to the birds all around them, and harvest a handful of berries³ for tea later that evening.

A few notes:

1. The hawthorns serve as a host plant for Cedar Apple Rust, which is hard on apple trees.

2. To find out if a species is native to your state, visit www.plants.usda.gov

3. Consuming hawthorns can help lower blood pressure. To learn more about the medicinal benefits, check out an herbal book, such as the Woman’s Book of Healing Herbs. If you’re under the care of a doctor for a blood pressure condition, talk to your doctor first.