Friday, July 26, 2013

A Walk Down Warren Street--- Part Two:                            600 & 500 blocks

The first notable tree is an ornamental pear ( probably a Callery pear), which bear inedible tiny and hard fruit, eaten by birds once frost sets in. Callery pear's main asset is its beautiful spring flowers; however, the loveliness is offset in some varieties by an odor which I will not describe further, except to call it embarrassing.  This tree's popularity among urban landscapers is also explained by its neat habit (it grows fairly short and narrow) and willingness to tolerate bad soil and poor drainage.  Yet there are further drawbacks: Callery pear rarely lives past 25 years, and is susceptible to ice damage.  This photo was taken near 621 Warren;  another specimen is across the street near the De Marchin store. 

Callery pear: an embarrassing odor?

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Walk Down Warren Street---Part One 800/700 block

Let's face it:  Hudson isn't an oasis of urban forestry. As matters stand now, it'll never be Tree City USA. Most of its north side is so scandalously bare of trees that one is faintly surprised to come across mere bushes and shrubs.  Yet, for the arborist, Hudson has its attractions.  Recently ( after searching for weeds on Union Street) I've been exploring plant life on Warren Street and have made some interesting discoveries.  
     In the 800 block, one of the first major trees I encountered is a southern species near the limit of its range.  Northern Catalpas (Catalpa speciosa) abound in the lower elevations of Columbia County; the specimen near the corner of Warren & Worth is a real showstopper. Mid-June, I photographed it in bloom:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Weeds of the Friendly City (part two)*****

an expedition to the sidewalks of Hudson's south side....

Fleabane: does it really work?

Further down Union Street, I encountered this weed. Actually, it's more of a flower few people would really object to  in their garden.  I thought it was a miniature daisy but it turns out that it's called Fleabane (probably Erigeron annuus).  The plant gets its common name from its supposed ability to kill fleas. Might not be a bad idea to add a few dried stems to your dog's bed. 

Bindweed: a real thug

     On a less cheerful note, the plant pictured above is definitely a weed.  In fact, it even has the word in its common name, bindweed,  also known as Convolvulus arvensis, which translates into something like "field morning glory".  Don't be fooled: buy morning glory seeds at the garden center and forget about bindweed. To say it is a nuisance is to understate its behavior. Simply put, bindweed strangles everything in its path including, as you can see in this photo, pieces of metal.  True, it sports small white trumpets, but the damage it can do in a garden is stupendous. Yanking it out rarely works because it usually leaves tiny pieces of root in the soil, and the fragments happily regenerate. To eradicate takes deep and careful digging, plus vigilance.  I don't approve of herbicides, but if ever a weed deserved RoundUp, bindweed is it. It just doesn't have any redeeming qualities. 

    But the world of weeds is not all gloom-and-doom: near South 2nd Street I found a small but healthy specimen of burdock (Arctium lappa).  Not much to look at, the specimen in the photo below could grow up to a gangly 5 feet high, at which point it begins to look somewhat alarming. Don't be frightened: burdock roots are good medicine. Extracts from the taproots are reputed to cleanse the blood and detoxify the liver.  Gobo, steamed burdock root, is featured at many Japanese restaurants.  Burdock  flowerheads form globular clasping structures that will latch onto clothing and animal fur to hitch a ride to a new spot to drop seeds. They're so sticky, in fact, that the burr of the burdock was the inspiration for Velcro fabric. 

Burdock: the Japanese know best


Monday, May 27, 2013

Weeds of the Friendly City (part one) ***

"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

       The first so-called weed I encountered was (you guessed it)...none other than dandelion (Taraxicum officinale), right at the corner of Worth Avenue and Union. Of all nuisances, this plant least deserves the name. The culinary literature on dandelions is vast: from its roots or leaves or flowers you can make dandelion tea, dandelion salad, dandelion wine, even a coffee substitute, all of which are healthy and tasty. I like the French name: pisse-en-lits (pissabeds), which leaves no doubt about its diuretic properties.
dandelion: don't eat it just before bed
     Next was sow thistle (Sonchus sp.): a nasty customer. I haven't been able to discover any of this plant's virtues, except, maybe, that it sometimes sports a bright yellow flower. But most of the time it just squats there covered in spines, glowering at passerby. The photo below was taken on Warren Street.
sow thistle: a tough cookie

        I took a detour onto the railroad near The Finnish Line. Everyone knows train tracks are full of weeds. It wasn't a disappointment. On the margins, near some adjoining backyards, it was hard to miss
what I think are stocks: Matthiola bicornis. In some parts of the US, it is considered a pest but it's hard to think of such a beautiful plant as noxious. Neat colors: pink, purple and white; and on warm June nights it releases an intoxicating perfume.
stocks: a weed or not a weed?

     In the above photo, incidentally, the green plant at the left of center is the infamous garlic mustard, which has managed to make itself unwanted everywhere. It releases allelopathic chemicals, which poison the soil to discourage competition. In Hudson, or at least near Union Street, it is not thriving. But downstate, large areas have been taken over by this ugly and boring plant.

    Right next to the stocks was a fine example of a native plant which for some reason has a bad rep.
Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) is nothing much to look at before it blooms, but afterward, it opens an umbrella of pink flowers which attract butterflies and smell like hyacinths. The reason for the resentment against it might lie in a comment made by a Hudson gardener. When I happily pointed out she had a milkweed growing in her garden, she gave me a dubious look, "I have to pull them out constantly or they will take everything over." For a good review of the uses of milkweed, see the Wikipedia entry for Asclepias.  Reader Tom De Pietro points out that milkweed is the food of monarch butterfly larvae.
milkweed: just getting started
       Soon, on Union Street, I came upon a patch of bedstraw (sometimes known as catchweed or cleavers), Galium aparine. Now, THIS is a weed. It is inedible. Its flowers are ignorable. It grows in a tangled mass, strangling every plant in its path. Plus, it has tiny prickles on its stems and leaves that grab
whatever they can, including clothing and dog fur. No clear virtues here. All in all, a thuggish plant considered a pest in many states, and rightly so. See the mugshot below.
bedstraw: who would want this in a mattress?

          A little further down Union, as if to relive the bad vibes, was a bright clump of  Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus to be exact). It is a member of the poppy family, which is confirmed by  its many medicinal uses. But you wouldn't know it by its modest four-petalled yellow flowers. Greater Celandine looks frail, but will gladly find a home in cracks in walls and sidewalks.
Greater Celandine: looks frail but don't be fooled

       Poking out of a fence, to escape the well-tended garden that lay behind it, were a few shoots of yarrow ( Achillea millefolium). Here's a weed that has been bred by plant fanciers to produce large bunches of sulphur yellow or scarlet flowers. However, here was the mother of them all, ready to bloom in small umbrellas of tight-packed ivory pearls.  How did this plant take on the name of Achilles? Maybe it's because yarrow leaves are supposed to stop bleeding.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Peep this.....

It was in the last weekend of April I heard them, in the daytime. 

Spring peepers...those tiny treedwellers whose metallic calls zing out from woods all over the northeast as soon as the vernal equinox arrives. We have these little amphibians here in Hudson, too, notably in the woodlot down the road from the Vinyl Village.  Last year they punctuated my sleep with their frenzied mating songs.  Now, in May 2013, all I can hear at night are a few feeble peeps.  

What changed?

 Apparently, the weather.  There hasn't been much rain lately and these frogs need moisture, especially small temporary forest pools, for their eggs to hatch.  That's why they have been desperately calling during broad daylight, even though they usually buzz on damp evenings.  Lately, I've heard a few at night, but at 5% of the level of the Spring 2012 frogfest.

Here's a nugget: the Spring Peeper frog (Pseudacris crucifer) is equipped for an early start: it survives  temperatures as low as 18 degrees because it can thin its blood with a kind of antifreeze.

These tiny frogs eat grubs and flies: like the turkey vulture, they get rid of noxious stuff. They can survive nasty weather: like the catalpa tree, they know how to wait for better times.

Another useful citizen.

don't be fooled: little but loud

Sunday, April 14, 2013

trees, early and late

"The trees are coming into leaf
  Like something almost being said."
                        -----Philip Larkin
This has been a stubborn spring; finally the forsythia are in riot. Other too-eager volunteers, such as magnolia, are following suit, dropping their meaty petals on sidewalks and lawns. Yet the horizon from up here in the Vinyl Village is mixed: a few trees have already unfolded leaves. Others are swelling with buds. Still others are as naked and seemingly dead as they were in February. Why the disparity?
     It's all about pollination. Trees are like retail stores, each with its own strategy. Some open extra early. Some keep regular hours. Some open extra late. From what I can see up here,  maples, especially sugar maples, are quick to put out their bunches of small greenish-gold flowers to catch the earliest fertilization. Their leaves are not far behind. (Already they're the size of a child's hand.)
    As of May 1, there are a few species that haven't set leaves and/or flowers: sumac, sycamore, locust, catalpa, and ailanthus. It's probable that  foreign invasives (ailanthus), and those near the northern limit of their range (Catalpa speciosa) and black locust, have good reason to hold back. But what about the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the sumac (Rhus typhina), both of which are well within their comfort zone? They stand stark naked: the sycamore with its huge boughs tapering into tiny bundles of twigs, the far smaller sumac gracing roadsides all over Columbia County.  Their strategy is to wait out all possible frosts, til June if necessary. Likewise. you would think the catalpas are moribund, and wonder why homeowners don't  have these "dead" trees cut down.  They, too, are waiting and by June their huge heart-shaped leaves will burst out, soon followed by candelabras of frilly white orchid-like flowers.
    My favorites of all, though, have come to life: the redbuds, or Judas-trees, are decked in pink. No leaves, just flowers along each branch, kind of like the holiday lights the city wraps around tree boughs for Winter Walk.

Redbud: not shy once it gets going

Catalpas: dead or alive?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

birds of ill-repute?

      Lately, at dusk I've noticed dozens of large black birds assembling in the trees at the intersection of Green Street and Route 66.  These birds are not crows which, although they have their own twilight conclaves, are much smaller. And crows are noisy. These big dark birds are eerily silent as they hover and tilt in the breeze before settling down for the night. I thought they might be eagles until I realized their heads are far from noble. A quick consultation with Sibley's revealed these ominous creatures to be none other than...vultures.  Yes, birds of ill-repute right here in Hudson, NY, The Friendly City.
     The turkey vulture gets its English name from its resemblance, when at rest, to the wild turkey. The likeness is clear enough: perched in a tree, the turkey vulture also has a big ol' butt and a ridiculously tiny head. But the wild turkey sports splendid iridescent plumage and is garrulous; the turkey vulture
is dressed as somberly as a judge and, in my observations, says nothing.  Its Latin name hints at another reason why it's not everyone's favorite bird ---  Cathartes aura: purification, but with undertones of catharsis (i.e. vomiting/purging).
      While not terribly fastidious about their diet (they eat dead fish, dead birds and small dead mammals), they much prefer a freshly-killed menu. But they have their standards: turkey vultures will not touch rotten roadkill. For centuries, vultures have been seen as disease-spreading vermin.  Research has shown that their corrosive digestive fluids destroy bacteria and viruses. In reality, they serve as the our environment's sanitation engineers.
      Once we are alerted to something we've been previously ignorant of, we tend to see it everywhere.
(Buy a Subaru, see them all over.) Turkey vultures are no exception. Last week, from my perch in the Vinyl Village, I began to notice them in the skies across Hudson.  The biggest ones must have a wingspan of about five feet, and to see them aviate is a marvel. They rarely confront the predominant winds but instead bank against them, kite-like, sniffing for carrion. When there's a lull, they lower their wings from a V and glide elegantly, effortlessly on the updrafts.  No wild turkey can fly like this. Looking up, I notice they aren't all black; their underwings are dove-gray.
Really so bad? (photo by Donald Bourque) 
      Yesterday, as I turned onto Nine Partners Road going north on the Taconic Parkway, I happened on two turkey vultures tearing into the plump carcass of a raccoon.  I don't know what was the most remarkable aspect of this sight: the queue of crows lined up just beyond the vultures, impatient for their turn at the buffet, or the raw heads of the big birds.  Black, gray, pink: hardly the plumage of a hanging judge....more the colors of a useful citizen of our world.

A useful citizen