Pilgrim Heights Truro

On the day after Thanksgiving we treated ourselves to some travel to the Outer Cape. It was an interesting way to see how radically the weather differs from one end of Cape Cod to the other in the space of an hour or two, as Truro had thick snow and icy roads while Yarmouth and Barnstable’s roads were clear. It was on these icy roads that we drove to Truro, to check out for the first time some of the walking paths in that town. That windy, 32 degree morning found us to be the only brave creatures to walk the Pilgrim Heights path, save for some dog prints in the wet sand we had the place to ourselves. I commented that all those people stuck in a busy shopping mall were missing out, as we climbed the quiet dunes. Then again, those who chose the mall did us a favor, giving us our own private viewing of nature.

Although much of Cape Cod does not have the typical New England fall foliage color we think of, with reds and oranges – fall and winter have their own uniquely beautiful views on Cape Cod. On this particular path in Truro the lush green of fat scrub pines is a rich contrast to the subtle palette of yellow dried pine needles and the icy blue-green of lichens and moss.

A peaceful woodland path at Pilgrim Heights leads to a deserted beach, which is quite striking. In my own non-nature-writer way I described the scene as similar to the beach scene at the end of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. There were no homes to be seen, just a gorgeous hilly area of dunes and sea – it felt like we were at the end of the world. To add to the “back to nature” moment I was having, I had my first encounter with seals. There were about 40 seals at the edge of the water, I wish I had brought binoculars. They were checking me out, and from far away their heads popping out of the water looked strangely like shark fins. It was really amazing, this brief interaction with these large bright eyed creatures from mysterious world of the sea.


NOTE: This path is easy to find, right off route 6 in Truro. It is extremely well maintained, however it is quite hilly, so not recommended for those who have difficulty walking down or up a steep hill. There is a large parking lot and a few picnic tables, there was also a bike path alongside the trail.


slugI wanted to write a little about our Cape Cod summer and document yet another season gone by. I did not know in May how cool this summer would be; in many ways I did not mind being spared from oppressively hot days. It was so cool that we barely used fans, forget air conditioning (which we don’t have anyway.)

In my last post back in May I talked about the groundhog that “seemed to move elsewhere” in fact that groundhog, and two of his friends came back. We were able to move them down the street to a less populated area, and we spared our native plants. The wasps who seasonally live in our kitchen window mysteriously disappeared after starting a small nest. I can only guess why they did this – perhaps because in my curiousity I touched the small nest before they moved in? My summer guests were happy not to dodge the wasps entering and leaving our back porch, but I missed them. We had no dearth of wasps this season, quite a few buzzed around our front lawn in August. I have slowly become accustomed to them; my heart still races when one of them lands on me – but I am able to calmly let them fly away instead of freaking out. I still don’t recommend them as pets though.

I bought a new smartphone with which I have been having a blast taking detailed up close photos of the flora and fauna in our yard. My biggest impression of summer 2014 has been the mass of life that lives in our yard, really giving an excellent example of the saying “nature abhors a vacuum”. With the abundance of native plants the soil has become enriched, the yard is noticeably moister. You can’t put anything down, like this empty can of coconut water pictured, without it attracting several bugs in a matter of moments. Here you see a slug, and moments later a paper wasp dived right into the can, which I bravely liberated by shaking him out. He (or she) emerged, dazed, wet and with an interesting story to tell his companions.

Seeing culver’s root bloom in the garden brought out the shopping instinct in me – I just returned from the garden shop at Garden in the Woods and got a few more. The store bought plants have already bloomed and have been cut back, but next year they will be on a Cape Cod schedule. The plants I added a year or two ago are still blooming strong, and the plants are 4 to 5 feet tall. They are thriving with no visible predation from insects nor can I detect any blemishes or disease – ideal in my book as I don’t use pesticides in the garden. The established plants are in a fairly sunny spot, and I may be pushing the limits by putting the new plants in partial shade. They should tolerate this, but time will tell. The light green leaves and the stately upright nature of Veronicastrum virginicum make it ideal as a centerpiece, and that could be even better if you have a few grouped together. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and I did not follow my own advice in my garden: The plants are mixed in with joe pye weed and marsh milkweed. Joe pye weed is winning the height battle and among the milkweed culver’s root seemed to provide the lighter accents. However, now that the milkweed has turned to seed, mostly, the towering blooms of culver’s root are finally demanding the focus they deserve. I am yet to find out if the plants will naturalize – I have them in a spot where I am not too concerned with formal borders and restraints, so they can go at it and mix it up with the other natives. This may not be a bad idea as the plant is threatened in Massachusetts and New York, and endangered in Vermont. Bees absolutely love this plant but I have not seen many other critters partake.

Veronicastrum virginicum July 27

I want to add that for the first time I have seen culver’s root in some mainstream garden shops, although they seem to concentrate on the varieties with blue and purple hues. Nothing wrong with that as those colors appear in the wild within the species as well.

Refueling station

Hummingbird July 27A female rubythroated hummingbird is enjoying the nectar from a pink variety Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm). Several hummingbirds, mostly females, have been visiting the beebalm colony. They are very territorial and don’t like to share their food source. I’ve seen several skirmishes and chases this summer – they seem to occur almost daily. I have added several different areas with red, blue and pink flowering plants (beebalm, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, etc.) in the hopes of diffusing these territorial disputes. There’s enough for everyone!

I forgot all about this plant, since it has long ceased blooming and obedient plant, butterflyweed and blue lobelia have crowded the border and are demanding attention from the eye and the brain. The picture is from early July. The plant is about a foot high. The flowers, of which there are a few, sit atop a single stem. The kicker is that the flower is a rather insignificant greenish-yellow thing. The red color is from leaves (also called bracts) just below the actual flowers. Yes, I was fooled by that too. Another noteworthy fact about indian paintbrush is that the plant is known to be parasitic – the roots attach themselves to roots of other plants to obtain nutrients. I am not sure whether it prefers certain species of plants or if its parasitic tendencies are less discrete – since I planted them they did not have much of a choice in host selection. The plant is a biennial that produces a large amount of little seeds. Let’s see where (if) it pops up next year.

Castilleja coccinea July 7

sawtooth sunflower August 25 1014I brought 3 of these plants home in April, after a visit at NEWFS Garden in the Woods in Framingham. There was not much more to go on than a few basal leaves and the attendant mentioning that “these” would get very tall. That was enough to intrigue me and I put them next to the porch, where they would get ample sun most of the day, and much more if they kept their promise to rise up high – if that was the case they would get some bonus sunlight peeking over the roof of our house. Sawtooth sunflower did not disappoint. They are now decidedly over 6 feet high with one or two stems reaching well over 8 feet. I read that the height as well as the shape of the leaves varies widely between different populations. Density of a population also determines height: Lone plants tend to get much bigger, often to 11 or 12 feet. A plant produces multiple stems with layered sawtooth leaves. Once the first flower blooms, new buds appear, and these rise a half a foot above to flower. This process is repeated a few more levels. Now in full bloom Helianthus grosseserratus is a favorite of bees, and it has an attractive smell that will entice human noses as well. I will need to keep an eye on mammals who are known to feed on the large leaves.

Helianthus grosseserratus August 25

Sawtooth sunflower August 25

June 26: Sawtooth sunflower is about 2-3 feet high.  Compare to live size turkey and chick

June 26: Sawtooth sunflower is about 2-3 feet high. Compare to live size turkey and chick

Hanging with the harvestman

Although an order of the Arachnids, harvestmen (or Opiliones) are NOT spiders.

  • harvestmen are scavengers. Spiders are predators
  • harvestmen have no venom. Spiders do
  • harvestmen don’t build webs. Many spiders do
  • harvestmen have one pair of eyes (although a few species have none). Spiders have 3 or 4 pairs. (Better to hunt with)
  • harvestmen have a fused body. Spiders have a distinct torso and abdomen

Of course, this is over-simplifying things a bit. But it should give you enough info to think about NOT squashing this beneficial creature. Not that you should be killing spiders either…


Summer memories

Hate to say it, but the summer is fleeting by quickly. Wetter than usual, and shorter than usual – that’s how I’ll remember it. It is not too soon to capture and post the moment. Before too long we’ll be reminiscing by the fire after shoveling out the driveway…

backyard shot June 2014

Tall coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) making the most of some late June sun…

Black-eyed susan June 2014

Black-eyed susan recovering nicely after being decimated last summer and fall by a family of groundhogs…

cardinalflower June 2014

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) on the east side of the house (morning sun only)

I have had two Aralia racemosa (american spikenard) in an area that benefits from a bit more sunlight than does the rest of my tree covered woodland garden. Too much sun, I feared at first. The young plants did not do a whole lot of growing, that is until this year. While I thought I lost one of the plants to rabbits last spring, both emerged this year, and they grew with a vengeance, seemingly to make up for the unsuccessful attempts in years prior. They are now both over 5 foot tall and almost as wide. They began displaying little greenish white flowers in late June. Now, in late August dark red berries are everywhere. The plants are framed by joe pye weed on one side and pokeweed on the other. They provide a height crescendo on an island of beebalm, milkweed and butterflyweed.

american spikenard June 2014

American spikenard grows in a wide range of soils and although it prefers moisture it will tolerate dry conditions. The plants will hopefully multiply by self-seeding as well as by their spreading rhizomes. American Spikenard may look like a shrub but its structure dies down in the winter leaving no evidence. In the spring it emerges quickly to display its dark stems and the foliage turns a nice dark green as the season progresses.

Aralia racemosa has several herbal uses – the plant is related to Ginseng and the roots are used in tea, soup, and root beer. Native Americans used the root medicinally, for external use on burns, ulcers, skin irritations, and swelling. The berries can be made into wine, jam, or vinegar.

Wool Sower Gall

This particular gall – the wool sower gall, is produced by a tiny wasp called Callirhytis seminator. There are many different types of galls but essentially they are all growths on various parts of plants, such as leaves, twigs, stems, roots, etc. They can be caused by flies, mites, moths, and gall wasps, but sometimes they are a response to injury or disease: Trees are affected by viruses and bacteria as well. Galls are produced when an insect larva releases a chemical that forces the host plant to form a gall. The larva will use this gall as food and shelter.

wool sower gall June 2014

The insects and the mites are quite particular about not only the plant they seek out, but the location on the plant. The wool sower gall is placed on the twigs of the oak tree. I’ve seen other types of galls on the white oaks around my house, and many are attached to leaves. Oaks are important trees that provide shelter and food to over 500 species. Many of these are gall producing organisms so it should be no surprise that the genus Quercus is host to hundreds of types of galls.

oak tree twigs with wool sower galls June 2014

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