Tag Archives: flora

Nutty Over Nuts

Fall is an especially good time to find all kinds of nuts on the forest floor, in a picnic area in the park, or maybe even in your neighborhood or back yard. Let’s take a look and learn how to identify some of these wild nuts.

In technical botanical terms, all of these “nuts” are called the “fruit”. The fruit is defined as the seed and the package which holds the seed. So, for example, the acorn is the “fruit” of an oak tree, and inside is the nut which is a type of seed. If you use plant keys you will see those terms, but for general use, it is ok to call them all nuts!

Acorns are some of the most common types of nuts. Do you know what tree they come from? Acorns come from oak trees. Oaks are found far and wide across New York State and the United States so you should be able to find oak trees and acorns in a park near you. Acorns come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the type of oak they are from. They are a favorite food of squirrels, turkeys, deer, and other animals.

Red oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Red oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Red oak acorns are big (over 1 inch long) and roundish like a fat egg. They have very flat caps that cover only a small part of the acorn. The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is the most common oak species in NY and its state parks.

Scarlet oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Scarlet oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) acorns are less than 1 inch long and have shiny caps with tight scales. Scarlet oaks are common in Eastern NY, usually found on sandy or rocky soils. If you look closely at this picture, you can see a small round hole in the acorn: a sign that it was eaten by some type of insect.

Bur oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Bur oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The large size and heavy fringe of this acorn cap tell us that these are from bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), one of our less common oak species in NY. Sometimes you will only the acorns caps, as the nuts have been carried away by squirrels.

Walnuts

What nut looks like a green tennis ball? That would be the black walnut (Juglans nigra), from the tree of the same name. They have a really strong smell and can stain your clothes, so handle with care. Over time they turn brown and dry out. Black walnuts can be eaten but it takes a lot of work to dry and husk them. They also make a beautiful natural dye.

Black walnuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Fresh black walnuts can get almost as big as a tennis ball. As they age and dry out, they get smaller like the one in the center. photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) is a closely related to black walnut and has very similar nuts. They start out bright green like the black walnut, but are shaped more like footballs rather than the tennis balls shape of black walnuts.

Butternuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

By early fall, the butternuts nuts have dried up and lost their fuzzy husk and they look very much like the English walnuts you buy in the store. This butternut was found empty. Both black walnuts and butternuts are edible but it can be tough to find one that hasn’t already been snacked on by a squirrel!

Butternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts in mid-fall, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Hickory

Hickories are another very important tree for wildlife including turkey, deer, chipmunk, squirrel, mice and others. Of the 20 hickory species found in North America, five species are native to New York State. A good key to identifying these is found here.

Hickory shells ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Hickory nuts can have thin or thick-walled husks like the two types shown here, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.
Pignut_Bitternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Pig nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Pignut (Carya glabra), Mockernut (Carya tomentosa) and Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) hickory have thin husks like this. There are two types of nuts: ones that keep their husk on as they mature or ripen (“indehiscent”) and those with husks that split completely and fall off the nut by the end of fall (“dehiscent”). One has to look at the leaves and/or buds to properly identify these species. As its name suggests, Bitternut is one that is not palatable to either wildlife or people.

Shellbark Hickory_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shellback Hickory nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Wow – what nuts are these? These are the thick husks of the Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), a tree that is rare in NY. The husks range from 1.5 inches to nearly 3 inches long, and the nuts inside would be pointed at both ends. That’s one tough nut to crack! These husks were empty, but you can see how the cavity tapers to a point at each end. The more common Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is very similar, but the nuts are rounded at the base and the husks do not exceed 2 inches long. Nuts from both of these trees are sweet and edible.

American Chestnut

American Chestnut_photo by Julie Lundgren
American chestnut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

If you find one of these, consider yourself very lucky! This is the fruit and nut of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Although a blight killed off the large trees, some sprouts persisted and some trees do get large enough to produce nuts like this. These spikes are so sharp you can’t even pick them up with your bare hands, which keeps animals from eating the nut inside. Eventually the husks open up to release the nut in hopes that a new tree will grow.

Quiz Time – What Nuts are These?

Piles hickory shells_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shell pile at the base of a tree, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

It’s easy to overlook them, but look around the base of the trees and sometimes you will find piles of nuts – empty or maybe whole. All kinds of nuts are a very important food source for wildlife. The ones shown above (mixed in with the leaves) are mostly the empty shells or husks of hickory nuts that were eaten by animals.

Shell assortment ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Can you find the following nuts: black walnut, a half-eaten butternut, 2 kinds of hickory nuts, and caps from some acorns? Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Learn More

Want to learn more about nuts and tree fruits of all kinds? Below are some good books and websites to get you started.

Fruit Key and Twig Key book_photo by Julie Lundgren
“Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs” by William Harlow, photo by Julie Lundgren.

GoBotany – an online tool for identifying plants in New England but includes most tree species found in NY state too.

Shellbark Hickory NYNHP Conservation Guide

New York Flora Atlas

Photos and post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Bees in the Butterfly Garden

It may be some time before we get to see bees and butterflies again, but when spring comes, we know that our friends at Fahnstock State Park will be ready to welcome them back with open arms and bouquets of native flowers. Check out this vibrant post from Native Beeology!

Native Beeology

Anne Odell Butterfly Garden – Fahnestock State Park –

In a recent venture to The Hubbard Lodge in Fahnestock State Park, I explored a butterfly garden flourishing with beautiful native flowering plants. The garden was alive with tired butterflies sporting tattered wings, queen bumblebees fattening up for a long winter hibernation, and a diversity of solitary bees finishing up their nests.  This garden named the Ann Odell Butterfly Garden was created in 2003 in memory of Ann Odell, an art teacher and gardener.  The winding paths in this tranquil place is a fitting tribute, inviting those who enter to explore and discover all things wild and beautiful.  Indeed, this garden is much more than a butterfly garden.

DSC_0218 Gazebo near the Entrance to the Ann Odell Butterfly garden

DSC_0222 Joe-pye-weed

DSC_0237 Asters and goldenrods

The most notable feature of this autumn garden is the purple New England asters that stand tall in the…

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Witch Hazel

Just as we have to say goodbye to the resplendent colors of fall, the last flowering plants of the year put on a final show of color before we resign ourselves to a season of white snow, gray skies, and cold winds.

Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a generally inconspicuous understory species, often overshadowed by the birches and maples of New York’s forests, but when the trees lose their leaves every year, it gives this common shrub and opportunity to take the spotlight.

In early fall, witch-hazel plants begin to disperse their seeds, which have been ripening over the course of the entire year. At this time, the fruits of the plant open up to reveal two glossy black seeds which are explosively ejected away from the plant—this unusual behavior earns it the colloquial name, snapping hazel.

After the seeds have been dispersed, witch-hazel flowers bloom in preparation next year’s fruit. In New York, you’ll see the spidery yellow blooms beginning in mid- to late October and early November. Regional variations in colors range from greenish gold to red, but yellow is the most common color, especially in the Hudson Highlands region.

Photo by Tim Howard
Photo by Tim Howard

Featured image is a witch-hazel blossom. Photo citation: Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org. Post by Paris Harper

Protecting Mud Lake

Riddell_Skunk_cabbage_ParisHarper
Skunk cabbages grow in the damp peat at the shady, forested edge of the bog.

NYS Parks often has to perform a balancing act between meeting the needs of the wildlife and environments, and providing the opportunities for recreation that sometimes negatively impact ecosystems, but also allow people to experience nature and buoy the public interest in maintaining and protecting our parks.

Mud Lake, at Robert V. Riddell (RVR) State Park in Delaware County, is a good example of such a place. The NY Natural Heritage program (NYNHP) completed a vegetation map based on field surveys at Robert V. Riddell State Park, and has documented one rare insect species and a high quality dwarf shrub bog, both at Mud Lake. Mud Lake is a very scenic feature in the park, but as park use increases, this fragile ecosystem faces greater risks. For this reason, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) is looking to provide better visitor access to Mud Lake while protecting the fragile bog and pond habitat.

Given that RVR has only recently been designated a state park, there has been relatively little development beyond trail surveys and invasive species removal. Because the park is so close to Hartwick College, one of the most important uses of the park is for education and research, which only adds to the importance of protecting a rare and high-quality ecosystem like Mud Lake. Hartwick College has been a long time partner of State Parks and continues to utilize Robert V. Riddell State Park for educational opportunities.

Mud Lake is located on the parcel of land recently acquired from Hartwick College. It’s a small, spring-fed pond surrounded by forest and circled by a narrow band of spruce and tamarack trees, transitioning to low shrubs, and finally to a floating mat of sphagnum peat at the edge of the open water. This type of ecosystem is called a dwarf shrub bog, and it is a particularly fragile environment. Wild cranberries only grow in dwarf shrub bogs, as do carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. These plants can be found growing out of the peat moss.

Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!
Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!

The peat is strong enough to walk on, but the water flowing through the thick vegetative mat gives you the feeling of standing on a waterbed – I was afraid of falling through!

The peat will hold up up, but not without getting your shoes wet!
The peat will hold you up, but not without getting your shoes wet!

Visitor access to Mud Lake is challenging. Currently, there is no defined pathway that can take you from the edge of the forest out to the open pond and bog area. This means any park visitors that want to get a closer look are making their own paths through the edge of the bog, and putting fragile plants at risk of being crushed.

To protect Mud Lake and also to enhance visitor experiences, OPRHP is in the process of designing a boardwalk from the upland edge of the bog to the water’s edge, including a gathering space where groups of students and other visitors can be brought to view the bog. However, building a solid structure on a bog presents unique challenges. Last winter, core samples taken from the peat went as far as 27 feet deep and still did not hit hard earth. At the tree line, solid ground was 20 feet below the surface of the soft, damp peat layer. OPRHP is still working on resolving all the construction challenges in this project, but we are hard at work to protect Mud Lake.

Surveyors at work on Mud Lake
Surveyors at work on Mud Lake

featured image is of Mud Lake in early May. Post and photos by Paris Harper 

Happy Earth Day!

NYS Parks is celebrating Earth Day 2014 with the official launch of our blog, Nature Times, produced by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. While you can find all the information you need on the locations, amenities, and policies of state parks at the official NYSParks.com website, this blog will provide information on the ongoing projects, programming, recent wildlife sightings, and general subjects of interest that relate to the New York Parks system. For our first post, we’d like to look forward to the new growth that comes in the early spring.

Each year, as the snow begins to melt and it seems like warm weather is right around the corner, the spring ephemerals push their way out of the cold, muddy ground and give us the first glimpse of spring color at the end of the long, grey winter.

The spring ephemerals are a group of perennial plants that emerge in early spring for a short period of time in which they grow, reproduce, and then die back down to their roots until the next year.

The adaptive strategy of spring ephemerals is most common in deciduous forests because it allows small plants to take advantage of the high levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before all the trees regrow their leaves.

Click on the pictures in the photo gallery to get a closer look at a few of the spring ephemerals  we can find in New York State Parks in the coming months, and as you’re watching outside for the appearance of spring flowers, don’t forget to check for new posts each week on NYS Parks Nature Times!