The bright blue berries of clintonia. PHOTO COURTESY OF FLORAFINDER.COM

Clintonia blue berries are beauts

Native Americans call August “the month when the berries are ripe,” and a feast it is for both man and beast if you know which ones to eat.

Nightshade berries are a brilliant red in August, and although they look tempting, never eat them, for they are very poisonous. I find this plant especially interesting in that you can see both flowers and fruit at the same time on a plant. The colorful fruit is egg-shaped, in drooping clusters. All parts of the plant contain the alkaloid material solanine. Although nightshade is closely related to tomatoes and eggplants, it can be eaten only by wildlife. It is particularly enjoyed by skunks, raccoons, mice and many song and game birds. Actually, there are 1,000 species of nightshades in the world and about 30 kinds in this country. It is quite beautiful.

Take time to look for clintonia, or Clinton‘s lily, in the woods this month, for the yellow bell-shaped flowers that were in bloom earlier in the summer have now turned to cobalt blue, ball-shaped fruit. The color blue is very special to see. The fruit is found on the top of a single flower stalk and is mildly toxic to humans. This plant is often known as the blue bead lily. Look for it in the deep-shaded, moist woods on this island. This lily was named after Gov. Dewitt Clinton, a botanist-statesman in New York. He studied flowers as avidly as modern officials play golf or go fishing to get away from the affairs of state.

This island has many bogs to see and explore with care – I emphasize “with great care. Bogs are usually inaccessible areas where wildlife and plants live, but here on Mount Desert Island, it is possible in a few places to view some of the bog plants without even getting your feet wet. “The Big Heath,” as it is called on the western side on this island near Seawall, is rich in plant life. It also is the nesting area for many species of warblers. Some enthusiasts consider it the “hottest” birding area in New England.

Bog specialties are the palm warbler and Lincoln‘s sparrow. In a couple of spots between Seawall and Wonderland, the heath comes right up to the road so that from the road you can see pitcher plants and sundew plants in bloom, as well as leatherleaf and a heavy carpet of sphagnum moss. As tempting as it is to walk into a bog, resist the urge and look at it from the road. Bog walking takes skill and knowledge of how to keep dry and safe. The bog is a very fragile environment, and your feet can cause much damage. Also, the footing is not solid, and bog explorers have been known to find themselves suddenly waist deep in mud and water. Never explore one on your own.

These bogs are pockets filled with leftovers from the glaciers melting some 10,000-12,000 years ago. The cold water beneath the vegetation was unstirred and is covered with a layer of plants in varying thicknesses. Along the edges of these mats grow spruce and tamarack trees. Left long enough and undisturbed, a bog forest may change into a northern cedar forest.

When I have been out in small kayak at the edges of a bog, I loved finding our native orchids and carnivorous plants growing within easy viewing and photographing.

The second brood of mourning cloak butterflies appears in August. These butterflies are the earliest to appear each year and are usually seen in April after their hibernation in the early adult butterfly stage. The spiny caterpillars of the mourning cloak are gregarious and have the unusual habit of arranging themselves side by side on the leaves of willows, elms and poplars, with their heads towards the leaf margins as they feed. This really is an amazing thing to see happening. When they have completely skeletonized their leafy meal, they march in procession to another leaf. As they go along, each caterpillar spins a silken thread, and all these threads together are called a “carpet.” The whole parade is fascinating to watch. I first saw such a parade about 40 years ago in Tremont when a fisherman friend called to ask us what was going on in his willow tree. We went right down to see.

Watch now for nighthawks on the move. This bird is not a hawk but is a big-eating cousin of the whippoorwill. In spite of its name, the nighthawk is active in the late afternoon when insects are apt to be flying. The bird has an enormous mouth that opens far back under the ears. As the bird flies and feeds, the mouth is left wide open so it can catch large moths and other flying insects it comes upon.

The nighthawk has wings close to 2 feet in length and appears in flight as a slim-winged dark bird flying about high in the air. In each wing, you can often spot the broad white wing patch, which when viewed against the sky, looks like a hole or window in the wings.

The nighthawk migration ranges over an enormous area from South America to the Arctic Ocean, but the bird breeds only from the Gulf States northward. There are several nesting records from MDI. The female does not really build a nest. She merely lays her eggs on a flat surface, such as flat roof of an office building or a flat rock or gravel.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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