A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

There are two large pots in the corner of our back deck behind the Adirondeck chair. For all of spring, summer and most of fall, the leafy succulents therein are about as colorful as broccoli. Then, just as the spectacular flowers of summer are gone, and only the last of the cleomes and daisies remain, beautiful pinkish mauve bundles emerge behind the chair. What had been playing a supporting role suddenly dominates the esthetics, like that rare moment in a symphony when the cello has a solo. 

This plant which performs the welcome chore of extending color into sweater weather is a form of sedum known as Stonecrop, which sounds like the name of a 70s prog rock band but is not. They are easy to plant perennials, withstand draught, heavy rains and full sun, attract butterflies and other pollinators. Some, like this one, grow tall and are excellent corner accents. Other varieties are ground cover. They need little care, are sometimes called “live-for-ever” and are dependable and adaptable. They remain attractive through the winter and are deer and rabbit resistant. 

“Stonecrop” is the name of a group of spectacular gardens, not far away in Cold Spring, New York. It is accepting a limited number of visitors even now. It surely got its name from this hardy plant, which could thrive on a site that has been described as “a rocky and wind-swept hill.” 

This particular variety is not precisely a sedum, but a hybrid called “Autumn Joy Stonecrop.” Its biological name is hyloteliphium, meaning “woodland distant lover.” What a great name for a plant that one ignores until, one day, it has become beautiful, just as all the color from the showier plants have faded. 

Some readers may recall that “Distant Lover” is the name of a song from Marvin Gaye’s iconic album, “Let’s Get It On.” A wistful, slow dance of a song, it is about separation. This woodland distant lover, emerging after months of waiting, is about returning. Once again the beauty of its color manifests just when the world seems to be going gray.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

During this delightful unnamed season between summer and fall we have in our part of the forest, one begins to see a red-capped mushroom that seems to have a gelatinous topping. It looks like a Madeleine with strawberry jelly on top that a Jane Austen character would include with tea. 

That would be a mistake. This apparently yummy fungus is an Emetic Russula, also known by the more emphatic names of Sickener or Vomiting Russula, as that is the consequence of eating it raw, when it has a distinctly unpleasant peppery taste. Parboiling or pickling eliminates the taste and illness, but renders it relatively tasteless. Nobody suggests eating it. 

The Russula’s red pigment is somewhat soluble in water, gradually fading to orange or pink as exposed to sun and rain. Its edges can curl up into a small cup or bowl shape. There are over a thousand Russula species worldwide. It was first found and classified in Bavaria and central Germany in 1774. Russula is derived from a latin word meaning “red.”  

It is often found under or near pine trees, with which it is in symbiosis. The Russula provides nutrients for the tree, and improves its ability to retain moisture. The trees provide carbohydrates and a shaded place to reproduce. 

Not all mushrooms and trees have symbiotic relationships. The very edible Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom, which is also considered to give a boost to the human immune system, is a parasite to the oak, rotting its wood. The equally edible Honey Mushroom is even worse. It is a forest pathogen which uses white root disease to kill the trees that give it shade. 

I commented to Kathleen that it was ironic that these bitter mushrooms help their hosts, while some edible and useful ones cause harm. She replied that perhaps the trees arrange this so their friends don’t get picked and the hurtful do. 

“You just blew my mind,” I said. Never underestimate the wisdom of the trees. 

** Warning: Please do not pick & eat mushrooms, or any other forest plant, without the advice of an expert.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

This one of over six thousand species of opiliones, or Daddy Longlegs. They are found everywhere but Antarctica. Since they have only one body segment and only one set of eyes, they are not spiders, but are anatomically closer to scorpions. This photo is the species that I have always called Daddy Longlegs, but some others around the world are quite different. Some have fangs or spin webs. Others do not. 

The male has much longer legs, which, contrary to common misinformation, do not grow back when lost.  They are very social creatures, and are often found gathering in groups of a thousand or more. They can live up to seven years, making some of them Granddaddy Longlegs, which they are also called. 

When I was a very small boy I was scared of spiders. My dad told me that Daddy Longlegs were not spiders and there was no reason to be afraid. This helped me to begin to look more closely at what was around me, and discriminate between what could hurt me and what only looked scary.

 Males valiantly guard eggs against all dangers, which may be how they got their name. There is an urban legend that says that these not-spiders are among the most venomous and dangerous arachnids in the world. As I understand, an “urban legend” is a euphemism for humbug, though I find that such does not confine itself to urban areas. 

The legend may have gotten started because some Daddy Longlegs are capable of killing Brown Recluse and Black Widow spiders. The false conclusion is that anything capable of killing such venomous spiders must itself be even more venomous. Not true. Longlegs are among the most harmless to humans of all the creatures in the forest.  Dad was right. 

Daddy Longlegs have sufficient fangs and venom to kill spiders, but the fangs are way too small to break human skin and even so, the venom is similarly weak. Somehow it is reassuring to know that it is not necessary to be dangerous to humans in order to thwart creatures that are.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

This flower is found on a bush near our shed. It is a Common Hibiscus, also known as Althea and as a Korean Rose. In the United Kingdom it is called Rose Mallow. It has been around Japan since the eighth century and probably longer in Syria. Here it is often called Rose of Sharon. 

It is slightly invasive, so it is easily transplanted, very hearty and can even thrive with neglect. John Steinbeck chose wisely when he chose the name Rose of Sharon, which her family pronounced “Rosasharn,” as the name of Tom Joad’s sister in “The Grapes of Wrath.” 

Rose of Sharon is a phrase found in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon. The author writes, “I am a rose of Sharon.” The Hebrew word sharon means “plain,” in this case the plain east of Israel, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Samarian Hills. However, in the next phrase he refers to himself as “a rose (or lily in some translations) of the valley.” While scholars disagree on meaning, to me it says that the author of the Song of Solomon got around. 

Roseasharn, her family displaced during the Dust Bowl, traveled to California. Like the flower, she needed to be very hearty, easily transplanted and able to, if not thrive, at least survive neglect. The novel ends with her act of breathtaking kindness. When I see this flower I think of the beauty of that ending and that kindness. 

I read the novel in my early twenties, the perfect time, when I was old enough to appreciate its privations and not yet cynical about the hope of their being overcome. It was also a time I was forming my own thoughts about things, and I took a lot from something Tom Joad said. “A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody.” 

I feel this every day in our part of the forest, and just a bit more when I admire our Rose of Sharon.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Last month I saw tiny grasshoppers that have grown quite larger. Now I am seeing tiny crickets. Will they also grow? 

No. These Red-headed Bush Crickets won’t get bigger than this one, about a half inch. The long, curved spine that extends from her abdomen is an ovipositor. She will lay eggs below the soil for protection and temperature control. She and her friends will spend their lives hopping among trees and bushes, while most crickets scuttle along the ground. Their bright coloring also separates them from others of their family, who tend to one color, usually an earth tone that serves as camouflage. The black and red combination is found in many poisonous insects, so this combination is a kind of protection, even though they lack the toxic chemicals. 

The long, black spoon-like protuberances are palps that, like their antennae, keep moving as they explore ahead. Only the males sing, by scraping their legs together. Sometimes males will wrap themselves around a leaf to amplify their song.

These crickets, sometimes called Handsome Trigs, are found everywhere in eastern North America and are usually nocturnal. They join in the forest’s evening symphony this time of year. Their Latin name translates into “beautiful leaf feeler.” 

Crickets and grasshoppers are part of the same order and are often confused with one another. Grasshoppers chirp by rubbing their legs against their wings. Crickets rub wings together. Grasshoppers grow to be as long as four inches, much larger than crickets. Grasshoppers can fly and jump. Crickets only jump. Grasshoppers are herbivores. Crickets are scavenging omnivores, eating small insects and larvae as well as your garden. Grasshoppers are diurnal, which is why I see them from the time they are babies to adulthood, while spotting a cricket like this is rare, though there are several around our deck now. 

I found these differences instructive, as previously I would have known only that crickets give advice to marionettes, sing wistful songs and wear top hats, while grasshoppers waste their autumn singing while the industrious ant works his abdomen off.

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