Friday, December 2, 2016

The Wood Wide Web

The forest is quiet and still. Overnight, our first snow transformed the woods from a sepia tone landscape to a black and white photo. Looking up, the lacy pattern of twigs embosses a network across the sky. When an icy shard catches me in the eye, I look back down, and am struck by the contrast. At the level of the forest floor, each trunk stands stoically alone, separated from its neighbors by a barren expanse of white.

The reality is quite the opposite. At the level of twigs, trees are separate. To avoid competition for sunlight, they tend to grow away from one another, each seeking their own personal bubble. Occasionally, two trunks or two branches will miscalculate and intersect to squeak in the wind, or groan as scar tissue melds them together until death do they part. The real connections, though, happen beneath the duff—almost beneath our notice.

Unlike the twigs, who studiously pretend to ignore each other unless forced to mingle, the miles of roots intersect regularly underground in their search for water and nutrients. When roots of the same or closely related species meet under the right conditions, they fuse together. This grafting requires that tree roots be sufficiently large; be in prolonged contact with each other under pressure that crushes their “skin”; and have sufficient moisture. Once the subterranean stars align, the grafted roots can transfer sugars, water, minerals, and chemical signals from tree to tree.

According to German forester Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, “most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems.”

This connectivity creates stability for the forest at many levels. On a physical level, the interwoven tangle of roots provides stability in windstorms. Imagine yourself alone, feet tight together, being pushed. Either you fall over, or your “trunk” splits and you step forward for stability. If you stand with a wide base, or link limbs with friends, you can withstand more force. As trees toss in a gale, their own spreading roots provide a stable base. But it doesn’t stop there. Their roots are connected to their neighbors’ roots, and their collective base is as wide as the entire forest.

That entire forest is important. Together, all the trees create a microclimate: their very own ecosystem that buffers wind, stays cooler in the summer, and holds moisture at multiple levels. This microclimate is so important that it might even be worthwhile for well-located trees—those with ample access to water, nutrients, and sunlight—to redistribute those resources among weaker trees and prolong their lives. The partnership would serve to maintain stand integrity against pests, disease, and disruption of the microclimate. It might also maximize use of resources by allowing all trees to grow at an ideal rate, instead of having a few wealthy trees hoard resources they can’t immediately use while weaker trees slow their growth in response to scarcity.  The network of grafted roots facilitates that sharing.

This cooperative community of the grafted root network might confer several additional benefits on its members. For one, it is mostly trees of the same (or sometimes closely related) species that graft at their roots. This means that when stronger trees help weaker ones, they are still focusing on the survival of their own species. The resulting healthy neighbors may become a source of genetic diversity when pollen flies in spring. In addition, by helping weaker neighbors, the stronger trees maintain an “enemy” they know, and prevent the establishment of an unknown competitor who might eventually reduce their access to sunlight or water.

Finally, when a tree dies, its roots can persist and continue contributing to the community. This is no small inheritance in a tree’s constant search for resources. Although the orphaned roots can’t deliver sugars from their own crown anymore, they can bring up nutrients and water in exchange for maintenance by the community. We can see the result of this exchange in the existence of living stumps. Although not every stump will continue to grow, I have occasionally observed new scar tissue forming on the cut surface. This is evidence that, while its crown is gone, the cut tree’s root system is still well-connected and active.

In an even more remarkable example of network support, small redwood, spruce, and balsam fir trees can be albino. Their needles are ghostly pale, and contain no chlorophyll. All their sugar, then, must come from other trees, intravenously fed through their roots.

This period between Thanksgiving and the New Year—when we open our checkbooks to share resources with those in our community who have less, and donate to organizations that we feel will support our favored microclimate—has many parallels to the forest. While we may sometimes feel like stoic individuals, an interwoven community is hidden just out of sight.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Not Mosquitoes!

One evening a few weeks ago, I looked up from my computer to see a thick swarm of mosquitoes at my window. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the tiny, leggy, little buggers bounced against the screen in the lamplight. More swarms greeted me in the morning, as they knocked against the windows and formed a gauntlet to my car. Several carpooled to work with me. Others joined me while brushing me teeth the next evening.

The bugs were everywhere. But none had landed on me, or tried to bite, or even buzzed in my ear. That’s not typical mosquito behavior! So, in the spirit of science, I caught one out of midair and gently squashed it. Even a hand lens couldn’t tell me much about this tiny tangle of legs, but after a photo shoot with my macro setting, I was able to ascertain this critter’s innocence: it was definitely not a mosquito.

The spines on its knees were my first clue. The lower joint of each leg had at least one and sometimes multiple little pointy prongs sticking out of it. The two tiny wings were clear and delicately veined. The abdomen was narrow and dark, with a lighter tip. And, most oddly, a projection on the underside of its thorax, what we’d think of as our chest, almost looked like a pale-colored mite clinging like a monkey on his mom.

Stumped, I sent my photo around—first to one entomologist friend, then another. When between the two of them I came up with the family Mycetophilidae and the common name “fungus gnat,” I sent the photo to “my mushroom guy” and he confirmed “Definitely Mycetophilidae. Huge family over a thousand spp. Google glow worms…”

Mycetophilids are in the order Diptera with mosquitoes, gnats, and other two-winged flies.  As I parsed the Wikipedia article, everything began to make sense. They are described as having a “strongly humped thorax and well-developed coxae.” Did you know that an insect’s coxa is the base of its leg, roughly equivalent to our upper thigh? Neither did I. But the humped back and large, pale-colored coxae on my insect are what had looked like a monkey-baby mite to my unaided eye. Fungus gnats are also said to have spinose legs, which must be the scientific way to describe bayonets sticking out of your knees.

I was a little disappointed that none of my entomologist friends could identify my little guy to species. As it turns out, this would require close study of wing venation (ok, that’s not too hard) and chaetotaxy (which means the arrangement of the bristles on their body), and genitalia (which strikes me as a little too invasive for such a recent acquaintance.) Plus, with over 3,000 species in Mycetophilidae, it might take weeks to get through a dichotomous key.

“Most of their natural history secrets remain untold.” wrote Peter H. Kerr in his entry on fungus gnats for the Encyclopedia of Entomology. That may be so, but we know more than nothing. For instance, fungus gnats occur on all continents except Antarctica. Most (but not all) types of fungus gnats feast on the fruiting bodies, mycelia, and spores of fungi. They prefer damp habitats where their favorite fungi grow, and sometimes form thick swarms. In those forests, they play an important role in the food web.

A few species of fungus gnats become pests in the damp soil of gardens, farms, nurseries, and overwatered flower pots. Most of the time, though, a female fly will lay her eggs—up to 1,000 in her week-long life—in the cap of a freshly sprouted mushroom. The larvae develop quickly (three weeks from egg to adult) while burrowing into the cap, or make sticky webs on its underside. A few types of larvae are semi-predacious and may eat other insects who visit the mushroom.

Later, I took my mushroom guy’s advice about Googling “glow worms.” Radiant turquoise jewels dripping from cave ceilings appeared in Google Images. As it turns out, in a related family of fungus gnats, about a dozen species have developed bioluminescence. They mostly live in sheltered grottos in New Zealand and Australia. There, tiny larvae spin nests out of silk on the ceiling and dangle dozens of threads of silk beaded with droplets of mucus. Breathless, calm habitats are necessary so that their lines don’t get tangled. Breathless, I’m sure, are explorers who find a replica night sky illuminated on the ceiling of a cave.

The gnat larvae’s glow results from luciferin, a chemical compound similar to that used by fireflies. A hungry larva glows brighter than one who has just eaten, and that glow lures midges, mayflies, mosquitoes, and moths to their doom.

A trip to New Zealand may be in order someday, but for now, I’m just happy to know that it wasn’t a pack of mosquitoes still trying to invade my house in November!

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Driving Back in Time

Everything along the highway south of Duluth was a dismal November gray when I started out on a road trip to visit my favorite cousins; out of touch since the last family wedding two years ago. The skeletons of trees, the low, damp clouds, even the road itself conspired to be gray. A few patches of oaks held their coppery leaves, but they were subdued without the sun. As I sped south, though, I felt like time was moving backward. The fall phenology of color change and leaf-off that I’ve been observing at home unfolded in reverse beside my humming wheels.

First, golden triangles jumped back onto the twigs of a few aspens and clung there fluttering the breeze. Next, I started noticing some of the planted trees and shrubs—weeping willows in yards and something burgundy in the fence lines—still dressed in color.

By the time I got to the city of St. Paul, I’d traveled back a few weeks at least, to the time when sumacs blazed not just with red, but with the full rainbow of green, yellow, and orange as well. When did the sumacs turn in Northern Wisconsin? Early October was my best guess, 3 to 4 weeks ago. In town, other trees held their leaves, too. Brown skeletons were still evident in the post-Halloween landscape, too, but they didn’t dominate like up north.

Emerging on the south side of The Cities, I found myself back in a skeleton land. The city must be a little heat island, tricking plants into a longer growing season. The introduced species, especially, tend to stay green longer. Buckthorn, for example, doesn’t even really have fall colors. Its leaves just go from green to dead. I also suspect that even the native species of planted city trees don’t have quite the same genetics as their wild cousins. The timing of fall leaf drop is affected by both nature and nurture; their genes and their local environment.

By the time I’d reached my first destination in Ames, IA, the changes were drastic. Some trees, especially the ashes, were bare. Ashes don’t have any tolerance for cold. Their strategy is to leaf out late in the spring after all chance of frost is gone, and then drop those leaves early in the fall. But the backyard of my family friends sported a highbush cranberry with fully emerald foliage and clusters of scarlet berries. The big, old oaks in their neighborhood had dropped just a fraction of their canopies. And a katydid sang as we chewed the fat. Many other trees that could never grow up north (i.e. redbud and sycamore) also held their foliage. I have nothing to compare with their timing. We walked around a nearby park, and I shed my sweatshirt in favor of a tank top.  Just 300 miles south, and it felt like I was back in early October.

When I headed south again the next day, the sweatshirt never went on. With an hour to kill, I took an early morning walk in a nearby woodland. Chickadees gave their gargle calls in an effort to sort out the dominance hierarchy in their winter flocks (that, at least, was the same). Then a bright flash of color caught my eye. A huge patch of yellow-orange chicken of the woods mushrooms glowed along a fallen log. They were fresh and juicy, still young, and not riddled with beetles. Those same mushrooms peaked just before Labor Day in my woods. Here in central Iowa, their season must be extended by at least two months!

So few trees lined my view on the way through Kansas that I could hardly judge their progress into autumn. Arriving in the town of Atchison, though, (having driven across four of the USDA’s plant hardiness zones) I found maples in full color, other trees still green, mums and impatiens blooming in my cousin’s flower bed, tomatoes still ripening on her vines, and a yellow butterfly dancing around the park. The 79 degree day just about melted me. Not all trees are benefitting from the warm weather, though. A few ashes and maples have lost their leaves in solidarity with their northern cousins.

The chilly mornings and warm sunshine here in Kansas remind me of early September in Northern Wisconsin. They are having a heat wave, the locals tell me, but even so the average temperatures for early November are 15 degrees warmer in Kansas than in Hayward.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted new research showing that fall color displays may actually lengthen for a while—as warm weather lasts longer into the year—before they eventually collapse with the loss of our most colorful species when they are forced farther north by the changing climate.

Happily, my visit felt like driving back in time in more ways than one. My cousin hasn’t changed a bit…except that the little girl with light brown curls is her daughter instead of her little sister (boy do they look alike!). Our conversations, too, were as easy, winding and distracted as ever, jumping from one thought to the next. There are some things that neither distance nor climate can change.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Mount Telemark

Piling out of our cars onto the cracked concrete parking area, we all commented on the perfect weather for our hike. Sunshine, a light breeze, and 45 degrees is about as good as it gets in late October up here. This group of curious adults was gathering for a walk titled “Why Wisconsin Forests Look the Way they Do #5,” led by John Kotar, emeritus professor of forest ecology from University of Wisconsin-Madison, who literally wrote the book on natural communities in the Great Lakes region.

Our destination was Mount Telemark—a place with a lot of history. As we hiked up the gravel access road, weathered sheds huddled in the bushes and rusty ski lifts peeked through the trees and overgrown fields. Telemark Lodge was an alpine ski area founded by Tony Wise in 1947, one of the first in the United States. Tony had discovered alpine skiing while stationed in the Bavarian Alps during World War II, and then used a GI Loan to purchase this hill. The resort eventually became a hub of cross-country skiing, and the birthplace of the world-renowned American Birkebeiner ski race. The impressive lodge with its giant fireplace was built in 1972; a Colosseum with four tennis courts added in 1980; and in 1984 it went through the first bankruptcy (of four).

I personally have relatively few memories of Telemark Lodge when it was open, but in the collective memory of our community, our region, and skiers across the country, this place looms large.

At the center of it all is Mount Telemark, a 300-foot-tall “mountain.” Topo maps show a wide, irregular hill; elongated NW to SE and rising above a sea of lumpy terrain. Legend says that the Ojibwe named it Kawabming, meaning “place to look out from.” The view is quite nice. It attracted skiers here in the 1980’s, and it drew us here today. John Kotar himself has a long history of Birkie skiing and Telemark memories. But its history began long before the Ojibwe, Tony Wise, or John Kotar arrived.

Around 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age, this area was buried under a mile or more of glacial ice, and the ice was melting. The retreat of the glacier was a messy affair. Glaciers don’t glide backward, they disintegrate. Chunks of dirty ice broke off and got buried or surrounded by heaps of debris. Sand and gravel filled in every possible hole, crack, and gap in the remaining ice.

Sediment-choked rivers of meltwater coursed along the glacier’s surface and plunged downward through crevasses, or vertical shafts called moulins. By one account, Mount Telemark was created in one of these moulins. First, sediment would have piled up in the hole, and then become a hill when the ice melted away. By Kotar’s account, the sediment may not have filled in such an orderly space, but simply a gap in the ice that was created as the glacier parted around a bedrock lump. In either case, we ended up with a giant hill of glacial remains. In fact, this is the tallest pile of glacial sediment (technically known as a kame) in all of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The steep-sided landform provided slopes for 10 different ski runs in its heyday—served by six ropes, 3 T-bars, and 3 double chair lifts. In a little twist of irony—on top of a hill once buried by a mile of ice—Tony Wise devised some of the original snowmaking equipment in the Midwest. The first iteration involved using logging sleds to haul snow up from the airport runways and blowing it out over the slopes with a silo loader. The very next year they installed a commercial system that used Larchmont Snow Guns and pipes—still visible along the forest edges—to carry water uphill.

This landform, made of gravel and cobbles, also provides dry, nutrient-poor soil that favors trees like oaks, pines, and birches. The human disturbance of cleared, then abandoned, ski runs also has impacted what grows here. The gently sloping clearing that we hiked up, for instance, sported a thicket of slender birch trees next to the rusted cables of a ski lift. Birches have very low shade tolerance, and took advantage of the sunny, open space to get a head start.

The view from the top was spectacular. Two vibrant, orange maple trees stood out in the sea of evergreen, rich oak-brown, and tamarack gold. We also could see an airport, golf course, roads, distant fire tower, and more remnants of the resort buildings and ski runs. Of the five places we’ve visited with John to learn “Why Wisconsin Forests Look the Way they Do,” this one especially drives home the fact that glaciers and humans have been two of the driving forces shaping nature in the Northwoods.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Jack Pine

A fleeting sunset flamed through a ragged stand of jack pines across our bay on Lake Two. Patchy clouds provided just substrate enough to catch the color, and the faint breeze barely ruffled their reflection on the lake. Here, on a classic rock knob campsite in the Boundary Waters, we perched above a scene of rugged beauty.

As it turns out, we were also perched on the border of the legendary Pagami Creek Fire. First detected on August 18, 2001, the smoldering burn stayed within a bog for days. When the relative humidity plummeted to 18% and a north wind picked up on August 26, the fire roared to life and swept through the forest’s crown. By November it had burned 93,000 acres, and sent smoke all the way to Russia. To protect the extremely popular, highly visited landscape of Lakes One and Two, the Forest Service completed a “burn out” operation between the fire and those lakes.

Looking at the maps, it’s quite likely that our view was part of the burn out, and our peninsula campsite was somewhat protected by their efforts. The point on the north side of the bay, now glowing with the sun’s last rays, was also spared. Its grove of jack pines are a respectable uniform height. While jack pines always look a little disheveled (like “something the cat dragged in,” joked my friend when helping us learn pine identification), at least these still had needles.

To the south, the skeletons of burned jack pines shimmered on the glassy lake, and the remains of their scraggly crowns scratched the sunset clouds at the same height as their more fortunate neighbors. Both stands probably started their lives after a past crown fire burned through an even older jack pine forest—although, with jack pines, it might be a little harder to tell if the burned or unburned half of the forest is more fortunate.

The unburned forest is getting up there in years, and has attained the average maximum height for jack pines of about 60 feet. Jack pines mature quickly, and maximum cone production begins at about age 20. The canopy shows signs of decay at only 75 years old. And while individual trees will survive up to 200 years (the oldest known jack pine was 243 years old, found in the Boundary Waters!), there isn’t much hope for a second generation of sun-loving jack pine seedlings under the stifling shade of the adults.

The charred skeleton of the forest is actually brimming with life. A thick carpet of 5-year-old jack pine seedlings, with a few aspen and birch mixed in, promises a bright future.

Jack pine is uniquely attuned to fire. Almost every burn that enters a jack pine stand will climb up the dry ladder of dead lower branches and become a stand-killing crown fire that provides seeds with full sunlight and a dose of fertilizing ash for expeditious growth. Flaky bark and resinous needles urge the fire on. In contrast, red and white pines self-prune their lower branches and grow thick, corky bark to prevent fires from crowning. They’re adapted to ground fires, which clear out competition, but allow old trees to thrive.

The key to jack pine’s dependence on fire, though, is its serotinous cones. Rather than referring to the sticky resin that glues the cones shut, serotiny simply means the trait of delayed seed release. Jack pine achieves this with a satisfying series of tricks.

First, the cones are glued tightly shut with resin, and may remain “in storage” on the tree for several decades. During their extended residence, the resin protects against seed predators like crossbills and squirrels, who make short work of the nutritious seeds in the cones of other species. When a fire finally rips through the forest, the resin ignites at a low temperature, and this relatively cool flame (only 112 degrees Fahrenheit!) helps prevent serious damage. The resin is stored in reservoirs within the cone, but only burns after it has traveled down a duct to the tip of the scale and encounters oxygen there, outside the cone.

Inside, corky material on the cone scales provides insulation for the seeds. The temperature gradient created from the outside-in causes the scales to curl back and open the cone like a flower. In fact, as our small campfire—composed mostly of jack pine twigs laden with tightly closed cones—crackled softly against the descending dusk, we watched in delight as the cones slowly “bloomed.”

Just that series of events is amazing enough, but jack pine’s cones go even further in their Rube Goldberg machine of adaptations. Although the cones open while the fire is still hot, the seeds stay safely stuck in the warm, gooey resin instead of dropping into an inferno. Only once the resin cools, shrinks, and cracks, do the seeds drop out—onto fresh, habitable soil.

What’s more, jack pines in fire-dominated areas produce almost entirely cones that open only with fire, while jack pines in the southern part of their range or on islands where fire is less prevalent, are adapted to opening just from the heat of the sun (a good thing, or else they might never open).

Sure, there is beauty in a colorful sunset “flaming” through the forest, but there is also beauty in the dance of fire, seeds, death, and rebirth when those flames are real.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Pipes of Pan

A fleeting sunset flamed through a ragged stand of jack pines across the bay. Patchy clouds provided just enough substrate to catch the color, and the faint breeze barely ruffled their reflection on the lake. A biting chill in the air confirmed a more challenging forecast ahead. Here, on a classic, rock knob campsite in the Boundary Waters, we perched above a scene of rugged beauty.

A small campfire, composed mostly of jack pine twigs laden with tightly closed cones, crackled softly against the descending dusk as I pulled a book out of my portage pack. For this trip, I’d chosen Open Horizons, Sigurd Olson’s autobiography, which is filled with just as many lyrical scenes and philosophical meanderings as his other books.

I read the first lines aloud. “The Pipes of Pan sound early before the sense of wonder is dulled, while the world is wet with dew and still fresh as the morning.” And before I could begin the next sentence, a sweet, tooting call floated across the bay. The first time I heard the regular, almost mechanical, song of a saw-whet owl, I thought it was a car alarm or back-up beep. I learned my lesson quickly, though, and now perk up my ears on the rare occasion of this simple serenade.

Saw-whets are tiny owls, only as big as a robin, who are nonetheless tough as nails. They breed in the boreal forests of southern Canada, and the conifer forests of the northern and western United States. They are variably migratory, with some owls overwintering in their breeding territories, and others, especially from the far north, heading south. Their peak migration tends to coincide with leaf-off. This guy was right on time.

The owl ceased tooting after less than a minute, but before I could return to Sigurd, another sound cut through the dusk. This time it was the messy pattering of ducks taking off, and then the breathy whistling of wind through wings as a small flock of goldeneyes relocated out of our bay. Their distinctive flight sound has earned these compact, black-and-white ducks the nickname “whistlers.”

These interruptions to Sigurd’s musings on the Pipes of Pan seemed appropriate, since Pan and his pipes represent the harmonies of nature itself. In mythology, Pan is the half-goat Greek god of the earth who makes music with a set of reeds. “What I heard there were the Pipes,” wrote Olson, “and what I sensed, I know now, was the result of a million years of listening and being aware...”

This late fall trip was one of the quietest I’ve experienced in the Boundary Waters. Few other hardy souls braved the cold snap. Many birds had either migrated or fallen silent. The sounds we did hear, though, seemed more significant in their isolation.

At about 10:30 p.m., the quiet gave way to the patter of rain on nylon. Just before dawn, the sound changed distinctly to the harsh chatter of sleet, and then the soft swish of snow. Snow! The precipitation continued off-and-on all day. Happily, we were traveling with the wind, so the sleet simply hissed against our rain jacket hoods instead of stinging at our red cheeks. Neoprene gloves helped, but did not completely warm our hands. Portage landings were awkward, given the strong incentive to keep our feet dry. This is what outdoor adventurers often call “Type 2 Fun,” defined by The Mountain Training School as “not particularly enjoyable at the time, but rewarding after the fact.”

Although, there was something about the challenge—and certainly the swing of a paddle and the balance of a canoe—that was pleasurable in the moment, even against the cold. Sigurd Olson experienced pleasure in the face of discomfort, too, writing: “but for a moment the Pipes had sounded above the crashing of the waves…”

The weather did improve a little by our final day, and we enjoyed a calm, sunny afternoon listening to the clear whistles of a couple of gray jays, the chirping of an eagle, and the low, wild roar of a rapids in the narrows. That peaceful afternoon faded into one of the quietest nights I’ve ever spent in a tent, followed by a crisp dawn with every leaf edged in lacy frost.

The lake steamed silently as we made breakfast, and a flock of geese chattered amicably in the distance—their conversation slowly drifting southward. Not in a hurry to end our trip, we sat idly watching the mists swirl, our empty oatmeal bowls forgotten. In the absolute calm, I began to notice an occasional soft rustling sound. All around our campsite, birch leaves were detaching one-by-one and drifting to the ground. Not a whisper of breeze disturbed them, but perhaps the weight of the white rim of frost was enough to break them free.

“…and the Pipes were playing softly as they always do when a man has listened to their music and followed it to its source.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Virginia Creeper

Brilliant blue sky and abundant sunshine greeted me at the Cable Community Farm. I’d been waiting for this—a perfect day to dig potatoes! Shovel, garden fork, and boxes clattered cheerily behind me in the little red wagon as it bumped over uneven paths. Stopping to open the garden gate, I took a moment to gaze appreciatively at the scarlet leaves of a Virginia creeper vine that had wound its way along the deer fence all summer.

A few weeks ago I admonished Albert Camus for thinking that fall needed to be a “second spring when every leaf is a flower," but Virginia creeper is a different case. One botany website describes its flowers as “insignificant.” Ouch! Honestly, though, I’ve never noticed the flowers. A quick search on Google Images shows that they are actually quite pretty, in a tiny, spritely way. The five-parted flowers are deep burgundy and pale cream, and grow in a grape-like cluster, eventually ripening into blue-black berries that are eaten by birds, mice, and other small mammals. Although, how much does their beauty count if you don’t ever see it? I just put a note in my calendar: next year, I’ll remember to look!

Virginia creeper’s fall colors more than make up for its inconspicuous July blossoms. Its starbursts of five gloriously vibrant red leaves (palmately compound leaves, technically) dominate all my memories of the plant. Growing up, we admired its color annually in the old fencerow below the house. A line of elm trees was dying and decaying in quick succession, and each tree was draped in more of the elegant vine than the last.

Those elm trees had bigger problems than a colorful vine, of course, but in some cases Virginia creeper can thread itself throughout the branches of a tree so thoroughly that it will shade the tree’s own leaves to death or add enough weight to hasten its downfall. On non-living substrates, like buildings, Virginia creeper is reported to be less damaging than non-native, invasive ivy. English ivy climbs using aerial root-like structures—appropriately called holdfasts—that wiggle their way into nooks and crannies and support themselves using adhesive nanoparticles. The holdfasts are exceedingly hard to remove, and excess moisture trapped against the wall can cause damage.

Perhaps because it is native, Virginia creeper isn’t quite so disparaged as a climbing nuisance. For one thing, it provides valuable habitat and hiding places for many small critters. The structure of its “holdfasts” also makes a difference. Its tendrils are tipped with tiny suction cups that flatten against the substrate and use the plant’s version of two-part epoxy to glue them securely in place. This structure eventually becomes woody and very weather-resistant, but is reportedly less damaging than ivy’s penetrating rootlets.

While the berries are toxic to humans and rubbing the stems or leaves on your skin may cause irritation, Virginia creeper is much less noxious than its most common look-alike. Especially when young, Virginia creeper is easily confused with poison ivy. While we all know the “leaves of three, let it be” rhyme that reminds us of a key characteristic of poison ivy, the five leaves Virginia creeper often unfurl sequentially. This means that at some point in the development of new leaf clusters they may only have three leaflets. Looking at the entire plant will help you make the correct identification.

Another mnemonic I just learned is “if it’s hairy, be wary.” This refers to the veritable fur of aerial rootlets that covers a poison ivy vine. Virginia creeper has those tendrils tipped with suction cups, but not in a density that would make it look hairy. I think we’re all pretty happy that it’s Virginia creeper and not poison ivy that’s twining itself along the deer fence at the Cable Community Farm!

A couple hours later, the little red wagon was once again bumping through the gate and under the glowing red garland of Virginia creeper. I was happy with my full box of purple potatoes, but overwhelmed by the 62 squash and pumpkins I’d also harvested from my garden plot. After loading it all in my car, I straightened my back, grabbed my camera, and went back to try and harvest just a little bit more of this perfect fall day.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.