Sunday, June 3, 2018

Periodical Cicada Transplant

Magicicada septendecim on a gooseberry in the UConn EEB Greenhouse garden, Storrs, Ct. June 1, 2018.
 Back in the spring of 2001, John Cooley and Dave Marshall of the Simon lab at the University of Connecticut collected some periodical cicadas in upstate New York and brought them back to the EEB department's research garden at UConn. Apparently, some of those cicadas laid eggs, and the nymphs developed on the roots of some small red oak trees in the garden, because now, 17 years later, cicadas are emerging in the garden.

Magicicada septendecim, shed exoskeleton of nymph on a raspberry bush.
These cicadas are from brood VII, from the Finger Lakes region of New York, now restricted to the Onondaga Nation but formerly with a larger range. Chris Simon reports that the New York population started emerging on May 31, the exact same day as the transplanted cicadas in the garden at UConn. Maybe 20 or so cicadas have emerged at UConn, and mostly flown off around campus. I haven't heard them calling, but I'll keep an ear out, and watch for signs that they are reproducing, like "flagging" on the branches of the local trees. It strikes me as unlikely that a new population could establish itself from maybe a few dozen insects, but I guess we'll have a better idea in 2035.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mud Season 2K18 Astronomy + Maple Sugaring

Venus and Mercury (top center) over Mansfield Connecticut, March 6, 2018.
In between the weekly nor'easters that have been hitting New England lately, there have been some good chances to see the planet Mercury. Mercury is always fairly close in the sky to the sun and generally tricky to observe, and I don't think that I have ever spotted it before. However, this March, Mercury is not only bright and relatively high in the sky just after sunset, but also quite close to the very easy to locate planet Venus, which serves as an obvious marker of Mercury's location.

Venus and Mercury peaking out between layers of clouds.

I've now seen Mercury a couple of times, including the night before last week's snow storm, when the clouds were just barely moving in enough to create some interesting scenes, but mostly didn't block the planets. That evening I also glimpsed a really good shooting star, which lasted for a solid second or two. The planets are visible around half an hour to an hour after sunset, near the western horizon, with Venus being to the bright white one and Mercury being the dimmer (but still surprisingly bright), reddish one up and to the right of Venus. Last week they were quite close to each other, but they were further apart when I checked the other night, separated by the width of several fingers held at arm's length.

Maple sugaring, Mansfield Center, early March.
This year I made the decision to start my maple sugaring operation in mid-January, rather than the traditional Valentine's Day. There were quite a few thaws and warmer spells (the arctic outbreak around the holidays didn't last), and the early start allowed me to take advantage of some productive January sap runs. February saw warmer than average temperatures, including a couple of days in the mid-70s F that broke not only daily and monthly records, but set a new record high in the Hartford area for the entire meteorological winter (December through February). The sap flowed really well during the heat wave, but yielded a strong-tasting, almost black "cooking-grade" syrup, of the type that is usually only produced at the very tail end of the season.

Maple syrup from early February (left) and the February heat wave (right).
After the heat, temperatures settled back to more normal levels and freezing nights allowed sap flows to restart, after a bit of a hiatus. However, the flows haven't been very strong this month, and this week have almost stopped completely, so I suspect that the season is now basically over, several weeks before its typical conclusion. It was a good decision to get an early start!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bulbine bruynsii and its Relatives

Bulbine bruynsii, greenhouse-grown in Connecticut, January.

Bulbine is a genus of about 80 species in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae (which, as currently circumscribed, also includes aloes and Haworthia). Bulbines are a varied assemblage, including geophytic species, weedy annuals and a few small shrubs. The arid, winter-rainfall climatic zones of South Africa and Namibia are home to numerous tuberous species of Bulbine with succulent leaves; some of these are window plants or form haworthia-like rosettes, though surely the strangest and most horticulturally intriguing species is Bulbine bruynsii

Bulbine bruynsii in flower, mid-winter.
 Mature B. bruynsii plants consist of a small subterranean tuber, from which radiate thickened, yellowish roots that can sprout additional plantlets, so that a clonal colony is eventually established. The plants are totally dormant in the warmer months, with no above-ground growth. In the autumn, mature tubers send up a pair of leaves (sometimes three or four leaves in coddled cultivated plants), and then a raceme of bright yellow flowers in mid-winter. The leaves are highly succulent, more or less the size and shape of small cucumbers, supported by incongruously skinny stalks formed by the leaf bases. The foliage of B. bruynsii is marked by lumpy horizontal bands, which are red below and translucent on their upper surfaces. The translucent patches presumably allow sunlight to diffuse into the interior of the leaves for photosynthesis; B. bruynsii is sort of a multistory high rise window plant.

In its native habitat, B. bruynsii is confined to a small range on the edge of the coastal plain west of Bitterfontein, South Africa, where it grows in open areas among larger succulents and scrubby vegetation. In cultivation, it seems to be unfortunately finicky, requiring a cool winter growth period with very high light intensity, on the edge of what it is possible for me to provide in New England, even with a sunny greenhouse. Root rot is a problem, especially during the summer dormancy. A loose, completely mineral soil with lots of sharp sand, pumice and perlite seems to be beneficial.

Plants do form clumps from root-borne sprouts, but this takes years, so seed is probably the most practical method of propagation. The seeds are reluctant to sprout, though, much more so than with other bulbines that I have grown. Seeds sometimes germinate in old pots, a year or more after sowing, which suggests that the seed coat might need to be broken down. The next time I have some seed, I'll try lightly scarifying it by rubbing it around the palm of my hand with a little sand. One further complication: B. bruynsii is not self-fertile, so cross pollinating two different individuals is required for seed production.

Bulbine diphylla, material from east of Bitterfontein, Western Cape Province, RSA.
 Several other species of winter-growing Bulbine seem to be close relatives of B. bruynsii, with similar midwinter flowers and stalked gherkin leaves, though lacking the windowed bumps. Bulbine diphylla is a relatively common species around the Knersvlakte region of South Africa, from Vanrhynsdorp in the south, north to Bitterfontein. Where I have seen it, it doesn't occur in the characteristic Knersvlakte open quartz flats, but instead among more lush, scrubby vegetation on loamy soil outside of quartz patches. In the veld and under glass, B. diphylla seems to be a more vigorous plant that B. bruynsii, forming thick stands of plants from root sprouts.

Bulbine dactylopsoides, cultivated material via Lifestyle Seeds.
Bulbine dactylopsoides is another related species from the Knersvlakte area. Like its namesake, Dactylopsis, the hitchhiker plant (family Aizoaceae), it is a denizen of quartz flats. It is generally similar to B. diphylla, but with waxier, stubbier leaves; plants in habitat in particular have almost barrel-shaped foliage. Immature plants have single leaves that are rounded and lie very close to the soil, closely resembling the probably only distantly related B. mesembryanthemoides. Flowering sized specimens develop the paired leaves held up above the soil on a thin stalk that are characteristic of the B. diphylla group.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Holiday Flowers: Crassula ovata

Windowsill-grown Crassula ovata, December 25, 2017. 
Crassula ovata, the Jade Plant, is a familiar windowsill succulent, but it seems to be pretty unusual to have one flower as well as my plant has this winter. I'm not quite sure what I did to bring on this display, which is much better than I've ever achieved before with C. ovata as a houseplant. It spent the summer outdoors in quite a sunny spot (after adjusting to life out of the house for a week or two under a tree in dappled shade), and then stayed out late into autumn. By the time it came in, around Halloween, there had been a little light frost, and the flower buds were just starting to appear. Abundant sun and an autumn chill may have helped; it also probably got a bit more fertilizer than usual over the summer (just the usual balanced water-soluble houseplant food).

This Jade Plant is not tremendously old, about six years from a cutting from a landscape plant in southern California. It has flowered before, but nothing like this year's show. Another member of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society also reported excellent flowering in his C. ovata plants this month, so it's possible that the weather this year was particularly favorable. It was a relatively mild and sunny fall.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mystery Stone Structures in Connecticut

Fieldstone cairns at the Werge Easement, Thompson, Ct. November 4, 2017

 Much of the landscape of Connecticut is pretty abundantly supplied with rocks. During the nineteenth century, after the primordial forests were for all intents and purposes completely cut, farmers clearing fields for crops or grazing would use the stones for walls and foundations. 150 year old stone walls are a ubiquitous feature of the Connecticut woods today. The eastern part of the state is also famous in certain circles for other, more puzzling fieldstone structures: cairns, piles, small towers, niches and even a few underground chambers, old but no one knows exactly how old, built by unknown people for dubious purposes. I recently got out for a tour of one of these "lithic sites," organized by The Last Green Valley and led by Joe Iamartino of the Thompson Historical Society, who tempted hikers with a quote from researcher J.P. Whittal: "There are more unexplained crude stone monuments in Thompson than anywhere in New England."
Hillside with about 10 cairns visible among the trees.
 After a slide show at the old Thompson town hall, a group of about 40 adjourned to the Werge Easement, a tract of private land set aside for conservation purposes and not normally accessible to the public. Anyone who has spent much time at all in the Connecticut woods has come across piles of loose rocks, in addition to the usual stone walls, in situations where it seems likely that a farmer was just disposing of stones picked from a field. The cairns in Thompson definitely looked more purposeful than that, more carefully put-together, and there were dozens of them dotting a ridge and an adjacent valley. I haven't run across anything remotely like it before.

Somewhat tumbledown stone pile with a niche at ground level.
 Several of the structures have niches in their bases, but nothing large enough for a person to get into. These seem like they might have been used to store something, but what isn't clear. Colonial records indicate that the native Americans built root cellars and underground sweat lodges, which could explain some of the larger stone chambers found elsewhere in New England, but not these dorm-fridge-sized cubbyholes. Cairns in the area have been excavated (often by looters and treasure hunters, unfortunately), but it seems that very little in the way of artifacts have ever been recovered.

A small stone tower
 There is one stone tower on the site, or perhaps a particularly tightly-constructed, skinny cairn. This was only about five feet tall, but another locality in the area has several towers of similar construction, but twice as high.

The "whale," an immobile boulder or bedrock outcrop with piled stones trailing behind it.
 A few of the structures, perhaps somewhat fancifully, might be said to represent animals, possibly turtles or whales. This struck me as a bit of a stretch.

Stone pile in poor condition, with trees growing out of it.
 A mature White Oak growing on top of a fallen-over cairn provides some indication of the age of the lithic site. I'd guess that the tree sprouted more than a century ago and could be 150 years old. The cairn, which looked like it was being overgrown by the tree's roots and not simply piled up against an existing trunk, should be older than that at a minimum. One New England stone chamber has reportedly been determined to be at least 800 years old, based on carbon dating of material found within, but in the absence of any surviving organic artifacts like bone, charcoal or wood, it would not be possible to carbon date the Werge Easement structures.

Stone pile arranged atop a large glacial erratic (the whale stone is in the background).
The majority of the crude stone monuments seemed to built on open ground, but a few were constructed on top of large boulders, the boulders being of such a size that they themselves probably were never moved. There were only two or three cairns built like this, out of the dozens that I saw on the walk.
The smaller boat-shaped stone structure at the Werge Easement.
The site has two examples of another type of mysterious stone structure: boat-shaped mounds, the size of mobile homes, with larger stones piled to make walls around the perimeter and the interior filled with a mix of smaller stones, creating a level, raised platform, three or four feet high. The two "stone boat" platforms, one large and one smaller, are fairly close to each other, but on a different part of the property than the majority of the cairn-type constructions. 

The "prow" of the larger boat-shaped platform.
As to what the Thompson lithic sites actually are, when they were built and by whom, that seems to be very much up in the air, without much indication that definite answers might be forthcoming. Our guides favored the theory that they are largely or entirely the work of Native Americans (the Nipmucs), and date to before European contact or the earliest colonial times. In this interpretation, the cairns are ritual objects or memorial markers, and may indicate the location of deaths in battle or other notable events. Some Native American tribes apparently had a tradition of marking the location of the death of an ancestor with a pile of stones, which subsequent generations would add to when they were in the area. The stone platforms could also be ritual sites, or they might be the foundations of raised wigwams. 
The view across the "deck" of the larger platform.
Another explanation that is maybe not as romantic, but at least as viable, is that the site is a sort of rustic art installation constructed by bored Yankee farmers, less than 200 years ago. Farming in New England is a difficult business and early efforts at cultivating fields or improving pastures involved a lot of moving rocks out of the way. In general, fieldstone was used to make walls, or sometimes thrown into heaps in out of the way spots or at property lines. But, there wouldn't be anything stopping a farmer with a more creative disposition from sequestering his extra rocks in neat little cairns and towers around his property.

 It is interesting to note that the Werge cairns and platforms occur in the neighborhood of perfectly ordinary stone walls from the 1800s, and sometimes the walls and the mysterious lithic structures are practically on top of each other, separated by just a few yards. So, if one contends that the lithic site is an ancient survival from pre-contact times, one also has to reckon with generations of nineteenth century Connecticut sheep farmers carefully working around the old monuments, and not deconstructing them for wall material or to get them out of the way. Which is entirely possible, but maybe not much more probable than imagining a farmer with a funny aesthetic sense building the stone monuments himself.

A Thompson, Ct lake in late autumn.
Lots of what might charitably be called exotic theories exist for Connecticut lithic sites, of course: they were built by wandering Celts on ley lines, or they were left by Vikings and the boat-shaped platforms are symbolic long-boat burials, or they're evidence of Phoenician sailors navigating the Quinebaug River. I'm not sure if anyone has claimed that they're the ruins of Sasquatch encampments, but that would probably be at about the same level of likelihood.

Ultimately, much of the interpretation of the Thompson stone monuments depends on their age, but there doesn't seem to be any obvious way of telling how old they are. I vaguely suspect that the structures are not ancient (multiple centuries or millennia old), or if they are ancient they received ongoing maintenance and reconstruction. The cairns look like they would be fairly fragile over the long term in a heavily wooded environment such as has existed for most of the past thousand years in southern New England; sooner or later they would have an oak grow up inside them and break them apart, or a three-foot diameter chestnut trunk would fall on them, or frost and ice would push the stones out of place. In the absence of human intervention, the structures would have a half-life, and if I had to guess I would put that half-life at much closer to 100 years than to 1,000 years. But for now at least, that is only a guess, and there seems to be a good amount of real mystery surrounding the lithic sites of Connecticut.