For the first time ever…

My blog has been dormant since early this year. During this period my husband went through four shoulder surgeries, and is now facing spine surgery. In a later post I’ll describe parts of all this which may be useful to others. But for now I am going to ease back into blogging with a short simple post.

As an older adult, I feel it’s not too often I do something for the first time ever. But Friday, while pursuing the sedentary pleasure of reading in the shade on our deck, I got to sit in the shade of trees I helped plant! And it felt good.

Over the years I have planted trees here and there, even sprouted acorns and popped them in the ground, knowing I would not be around to admire them when they got really big. I remember thinking once that I hoped someone somewhere was planting trees for me. Of course it’s true, “someone else” (including a host of squirrels, bluejays, and other animals which transport and hide seeds) has planted all the trees we gaze upon, eat the fruits of, and climb. But now, thanks to fast-growing seedlings from our two old birch trees, I sat in shade my husband and I had planted. It really did feel different, quite satisfying.

Birches make lots of little seeds which glide on the wind, sprouting wherever they encounter a moist spot. The slender trees now shading me started as little guys that I potted up to adorn the front deck; after a few years they outgrew their pots and were planted as a group. They’re prettier that way, and because the nature of birches, it takes several to make a sizable area of dappled shade.

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We also have planted our own aspen grove, five that we bought in big pots, and they are doing well. Our hot dry summers and fast-draining soil (that’s a flattering term for it) aren’t ideal for either aspens or birch so I water them once or twice a week in the summer, and that seems to be enough.

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I always marvel when I see houses without any trees: no shade, no windbreak, no fruit, none of the other comforts that trees offer us.

If your surroundings are lacking in trees, don’t wait for Arbor Day next spring. Plant some this fall and they’ll be ready to grow in spring. Get some advice on what does well in your region (use natives as much as you can) and what fits your needs with regard to questions such as year-round shade or not, growth rate & eventual size, likes to be in a lawn or not, species that provide food for birds or butterflies, blooms or fall color, amount of leaves and seeds to be raked if that is an issue, and so on.

Look for nursery sales as they pare back their holdings before winter; you can get some good deals. Or, just start your own. Some trees are pretty easy to grow though you’ll wait longer to sit in their shade, of course. Willow cuttings will grow readily if they get water; acorns can just be pushed into the ground and some will grow. There’s an inspiring short tale (The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono) about a shepherd who over many years revivified a desolate area by planting acorns each day as he followed his sheep. It’s fiction, but full of truth. Tree roots help stop erosion, their leaves cause the rain to fall more gently promoting absorption by the soil, their shade cools streams for wildlife and shelters other seedlings, their flowers, leaves, and seeds are food for many animals, and their presence gives birds, insects, and mammals places to live, breed, and hunt.

Trees in fall color, surrounding Monticello

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed [embosomed] in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown. “ (in a letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph, July 7, 1793).

Two months before his death, at the age of eighty-three, he designed an arboretum for the University of Virginia. Such an epilogue to years of planting at Monticello was perhaps inspired by Jefferson’s own adage: “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification I shall do it for posterity.” (This and more about Jefferson and his tree-planting here; the aerial photo is of Monticello.)

6 things you should know when planting a tree, from Arbor Day Foundation

To which I add: Leave the soil at the bottom (that will be beneath the root ball) undisturbed to avoid settling. If the tree is bare-root, gently spread out the roots over a cone of soil. Don’t stake unless really necessary, for instance when planting on a slope. Finally, water it in, and water regularly for the first couple of years or more depending on your weather. More tips here.

Visit to a California Eucalyptus grove

Growing up in Northern California, I always had a special fondness for the eucalyptus; various species have been planted there, mostly as windbreaks. They grow fast, are evergreen, and haqve fragrant leaves and varicolored bark that peels away in great strips.

So last week as we headed home from Sacramento, up I-5 to Southern Oregon, I wanted to stop and get close to some eucalyptus again. We left it a little late, and settled for a planting at a rest stop, on the northern edge of where eucalyptus flourish. These were not as densely planted as many groves, but then you can appreciate the individual trees more.

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These trees were afflicted with scale, which you can see as small white spots on the narrow leaves.

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Bark patterns are always fascinating; like the madrones of Southern Oregon, eucalyptus trees present masterpieces of natural form wherever you look.

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Wildlife

You can’t expect to see much in 20 minutes, during the hottest part of the day, among trees next to a freeway rest stop, but we found a bit.

In the picture below, a woodpecker’s work can be seen at the top.

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We found traces of some sort of beetles under peeling areas of thick bark, and these are probably what the bird was hunting.

At night, other insect hunters emerge; at mid-day they were sleeping high in the trees invisible to us, but one who had died lay beneath a roost tree. (Traces of droppings, along twenty feet of the tree’s trunk, indicated the presence of multiple individuals.)

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We did not examine him or her, and I’m not sure what the species may be.

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A good guess would be the little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus: it’s very common, it is the right size and color, and has small dark ears as this one does. Or maybe California Myotis (or “California Bat”), Myotis californicus. I am really just guessing––one source says there are 24 species of bats in the state of California. The small ears and lack of a “leaf-nose” structure do rule out a few candidates.

The butterfly we saw and photographed we do have an identification for, though: the Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia:

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I didn’t recognize it, and located a useful list of California butterflies with links to photos and information on each species. Then it turned out that Dan knew what it was all along, but it was fun to look through butterfly photos and have the Eureka! of seeing it. Maybe I will remember it better that way. The Common Buckeye probably isn’t resident where we saw it; the Butterfly Site says it lives along the coasts as far north as Central California in the West and North Carolina in the East and that:

Adults from the south’s first brood migrate north in late spring and summer to temporarily colonize most of the United States and parts of southern Canada.

That’s a lot of traveling for this tiny seemingly fragile creature.

Eucalyptus seedpods

I wanted to collect some seeds to grow at home, and had in mind the seed pods that are up to an inch long and look like this (source of drawing), though the ones I wanted are silvery-grey in color.

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But the trees at the rest stop were a different species, with very different seed pods.

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I’ll give them a try and maybe in ten years I’ll have my own eucalyptus grove.

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Neat (but voracious) caterpillar, Orgyia pseudotsugata

We found this caterpillar on a ground peony in our garden this morning.

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It is the larval form of the Douglas Fir Tussock Moth, Orgyia pseudotsugata. They are, like most caterpillars, voracious eaters and can have a devastating effect on Doug fir forests. Spraying, of pesticides or pheromones such as microbial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, and insect growth regulators, is often used against tussock moth infestations. Human activities, such as monoculture forest plantations, suppression of forest fires, and elimination of potential predators, have encouraged tussock moth proliferation.

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We were able to make a pretty firm identification of the caterpillar thanks to a terrific book, Lepidoptera of the Pacific Northwest: Caterpillars and Adults, by Jeffrey C. Miller and Paul Hammond. [Forest Health Enterprise. H.J. Andrews Publication Number 3739. December 2003. The authors work at Oregon State University in Corvallis.] Each page has a good photo of the caterpillar and adult forms of one species, with descriptions of appearance and ecology, such as what plants they are likely to be found on. Great book! Your tax dollars at work!

You can view or download the book as sections in pdf form. This moth is on page 175 of this pdf section. The book, an oversize paperback, is published by the USDA Forest Service, and was available several years ago (& still may be), free or very cheap, from
Richard C. Reardon rreardon@fs.fed.us
USDA Forest Service
180 Canfield St.
Morgantown WV 26505

Here’s a photo of the cocoon form, woven around dead Doug fir needles. [Photo by William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International] Lots more information and photos of Orgyia pseudotsugata here and here.

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The Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is an extremely common forest species in the West, a primary source of lumber, and is the state tree of Oregon. Notice the distinctive cone. [Image from Encarta.]

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A local dryad

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When I first saw this I understood better where the ancient Greeks got their vision of women turned into trees! Standing alone it is perhaps merely a curiosity, especially with the recently added white fencing, bark dust, and ornamentals (I’m sorry I never photographed it before those distractions/desecrations). But encountered suddenly in the forest, perhaps in dim light–that would be something quite different.

Flowering birches

Springtime, and the birch tree at our back door is laden with blossoms.

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This year I took a really close look at these, and then looked up more about them.

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Birches are pollinated by the wind, like corn, but a different design: the male pollen-bearing parts are the pendulous ones in this photo (right), while the much smaller female “catkins” appear from between a pair of leaves and curve upward. On our trees (Betula populifolia, I believe) the female catkins begin to droop downward with age, like all of us––the object intruding into the upper left of the picture is an older female catkin, nearly horizontal. In Britain the long male catkins are also called “lamb’s tails.” They bear a lot of pollen; a week ago when they were new my dark blue vest showed long golden streaks after brushing against them.

After pollination the female flowers will get larger, droop down, and gradually fall apart, loosing the scale-like seeds. Other species have winged seeds but not this one. Some of the male and female catkins survive into the next year. Below are some from last spring, still on the tree among the new ones. The old female catkins are shorter, thicker, & shaggy looking; rub one between your fingers and it easily comes apart into minuscule seeds and scales. The male catkins change with age too, becoming smaller, and hard to break up, almost feeling varnished on the outside.

Birches produce seeds abundantly and in our yard a couple of seedlings spring up each year in places that get water during the dry summers. It’s easy to see why they are known as early colonizers both after fires (secondary succession), and simply moving into wetlands or heath areas (primary succession).

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This tree also bears horizontal rows of holes, at which we have seen woodpeckers, either downy (Picoides pubescens) or hairy (Picoides villosus), probably drinking the birch’s sweet sap. The woodpeckers make the holes but others may come to them when they are exuding sap, and once I did see a hummingbird drinking there. Now that would be a great photo!

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