Tussock cottongrass

Cottongrass calls to mind cottontails



Tussock cottongrass thrives in one spot alongside my driveway, and its white cottony tops make an interesting scene. It is a perennial herb of wetlands, and you can see it in many places on this island. There is no problem recognizing it, for the white tufts on the end of the stems look just like cotton tufts. Sometimes, it is known as harestail cottongrass. Its Latin name is Eriophorum vaginatum.

You can find cottongrass growing in many parts of the world, and its uses are interesting. Native people in different places in the world have used it for medicinal purposes, making paper, diapers for small children, starting fires, lamp wicks, insulation for clothing, bedding and a dressing for wounds.

In the Arctic, it is eaten by caribou, snow geese, the heath butterfly and the black grouse. The grasslike leaves are slender. The plants are rugged and can stand strong winds, low temperatures and long daylight hours. Take a second look at the cotton grass you can find on this island.

A friend of mine was helping to water some of the flowers at the Common Good outdoor gathering place in Southwest Harbor recently when she found hummingbirds flying around right in front of her in their pursuit of nectar from the profuse blossoms in the gardens there. For weeks, she had seen none at her own dooryard feeders put out for them, and then all of sudden, they were inches away. It was a wonderful experience. I knew of one avid birder who wore a flowered hat with tiny feeding cups fastened on it, and in his hand, he had another offering of sweet liquid. It was not long before he was the center of attention for several hungry hummingbirds and even had them checking out his nose and lips for a potential feeding possibility! Being so close to these exquisite birds is very exciting. My children and I once found a young, befuddled hummingbird in a national park in Costa Rica and were able to carry it to safety. It was very many years ago, but the thrill of the moment is still there in me to be remembered vividly.

Black alder now has scarlet berries growing right next to the twigs. It is quite beautiful to see. This time of year, I keep my shrub identification guide handy so I can identify what I’m seeing and also help others I meet when they have a question about a shrub. When you see an unknown shrub with berries or fruit, note where and how the fruit is attached to the stem. This helps in identification.

Bunchberry flowers, and now their fruit, are good to look for this month. Bright red fruit now sits on the plant where the white flowers once bloomed. This well-known plant growing all over in our woods often has flowers on some plants at the same time fruit has already appeared on another plant. For months, bunchberry is lovely to see. The berries are rather insipid, but some wild creatures eat them.

The fruit of the Rosa rugosa is a fine fruit for human consumption and full of vitamin C. My mother used to make a wonderful mixture of raisins, oranges and rose hips that she froze and used as a relish and for baking.

Although this beach rose grows all over the island and looks as if it always lived here, it really is a newcomer, an introduced Asiatic shrub which now can be found throughout the Eastern United States. Wildlife avidly eats the fleshy fruit, which contain numerous seeds. Throughout the winter, many hips remain on the shrubs, and these are sources of nourishment when the world here is white with snow and other food is covered up. Fruits and other parts of the plant are eaten especially by deer. Thickets of roses make excellent nesting areas and provide protective cover for game, songbirds and small mammals.

Tamaracks soon will lose their needles. This conifer is our only one to lose its needles in the winter. Just before they fall off completely, the needles turn yellow. The straight, slender tamaracks grow mostly in or near bogs. When spring arrives, they once again grow their lacy, fine needles and turn a lively green.

This tree grows to be 50 to 60 feet tall, and the wood is strong. It makes good posts and railroad ties, for it lasts a very long time in contact with the ground. Native Americans called the tree “ka-neh-tens,” meaning “the leaves fall.” Tamarack is our American larch and also is called “hackmatack.”

The walk between Bubbles Pond and Jordan pond gives an excellent opportunity to see the Christmas fern. This fern was the first fern I ever learned to identify when I was a child. A naturalist friend of our family captured my imagination when he pointed out to me how each leaflet looks like a tiny Christmas stocking. Take a close look at the fronds and let your imagination take over. Look for this evergreen fern in shady woods and ravines.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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