Friday, September 30, 2011

Things to Look for in October

October is here, time for apples, crisp nights, and fall colors. And, the brain-hurting exercise of coming up with an original Halloween costume. For help with that, we once compiled a list of ten relatively easy (for a somewhat crafty person) nature-themed Halloween costumes. The mushroom hat was a hit.

Here are some of the other things we try to take time to enjoy in October. What have you been noticing lately?

Maryland Shore
Maryland shore of the Potomac by Todor Kamenov
Fall foliage will start becoming more apparent soon. See our list of favorite local places to enjoy the color, and leave a comment with your own favorite spot. 
Wild Grapes
Wild grapes by Memotions
Wild Grapes are tart but tasty trailside treats -- if you can reach them. We had some at Carderock in September; have you found any lately?

Acorns on tree
Acorns by VS Anderson
Acorns are littering the forest floor -- though not as many as last year, when they were clearly masting. We've been playing around with making acorn flour: take off the shells, grind the nutmeats into coarse flour, then put them in a coffee filter and run cold water through the flour repeatedly, until it's not bitter anymore. Then dry. Use it to replace a little flour in any baking recipe that doesn't require a lot of gluten. We love it in pancakes.

Virginia Creeper
Virginia Creeper by Rene J
Virginia Creeper has started to turn a brilliant red in some places. It's the harbinger of fall color.

New England Aster
New England Aster by giveawayboy
New England Asters are lighting up our backyard right now, and on a sunny day they're covered in pollinators. Do you have a favorite spot that they grow in the wild? We'd love to hear about it.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar waxwing by Kelly Colgan Azar
Cedar waxwings are beautiful but gluttonous birds that come through our yard every fall and feast on our holly berries. I love to find them by their high-pitched calls, which you can hear on a video in our post.
Stink Bug
Stink bug by fangleman
Marmorated stink bugs will probably start coming into your home as it gets cooler, if they haven't already. These bugs just came to Pennsylvania around 1998, and have been spreading through the eastern United States with stinky abandon.
Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom
Jack-o-Lantern by pellaea
Jack O'Lantern mushrooms are a poisonous orange mushroom that glow in the dark. Don't expect to use them to light up a pumpkin though...the glow is so faint it requires absolute darkness to see it.
We always love to hear what other people are noticing out there...leave us a comment below about your favorite things or new finds for this time of year!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nuts for the Potomac

Nuts are falling all over the DC area, which means another season has begun for Growing Native.

Acorns by KCIvey
Growing Native is a project of the Potomac Conservancy that collects tree seeds and plants them in the Potomac watershed. They are trying to improve the riparian buffer zone that helps to regulate water temperature, provide habitat for animals, and prevent pollutants from entering the water.

Since 2001, over 50,000 volunteers have collected more than 150,000 pounds of acorns, walnuts, and other hardwood tree seeds. Seeds are delivered to state nurseries and local schools to be grown into tree seedlings, which are eventually planted along streams and rivers in our area.

Interested in helping out? Check this map for a collection site or event near you. You can collect seeds from your own yard, or anywhere else that you can get permission: try churches, cemeteries, parking lots, historical monuments, and local parks. (The restrictions against removing any material from National Park Service land include tree seeds, even for a good cause). This information sheet has more on what they're looking for -- basically sorted, viable seeds from healthy trees.

Fall is coming
Chipmunk and hickory nuts by alumroot
They're looking only for certain species (links are to prior Natural Capital posts):

-- Bald cypress
-- Black walnut
-- Hazelnut
-- Hickory
-- Oaks
-- Pawpaw
-- Persimmon
-- Sassafras

What a great opportunity to learn a little tree identification this fall! Until we get around to writing up posts on all these trees, see the Growing Native field guide for more information about each one and what its seed looks like.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Calendar: National Public Lands Day

Saturday, September 24 is National Public Lands Day. Whether you want to give back or just play for the day, your options are many.

Rock Creek Park will be the site of the main event for Public Lands Day. There will be several opportunities to volunteer (with a free lunch for volunteers!), a recreation fair including the REI Outdoor School and kids and nature activities, and some big-name speakers like the Surgeon General. Full schedule here.

In the President's Park at the White House, there will be a Day of Play, sponsored by Nickelodeon, from 10:00am-4:00pm. Outdoor activities, such as rock climbing, camping, and the Jr. Ranger program will be offered by more than 50 organizations."Nickelodeon’s biggest stars including the casts of iCarly, Big Time Rush, Victorious, Bucket & Skinner, True Jackson, VP, Fresh Beat Band and more will be at the event as well."

There are many other volunteer opportunities on Saturday, including Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens:

Other volunteer sites include:
Fort Dupont
Arlington National Cemetary
Barcroft Park
Buddy Attick Park
Dangerfield Island
Greenbelt Park
Sligo Creek
Lacey Woods

Many National Parks also waive their fees for the day -- including Great Falls and Prince William Forest right here in our backyard, as well as farther-away parks like Shenandoah, Assateague, and Harper's Ferry.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

LOOK FOR: Hickory Nuts

Mockernut hickory nuts
We've been noticing lots of hickory nuts on the ground on our walks lately. There are three species of hickory common to the Washington, DC area: bitternut, pignut, and mockernut. The nuts of two species taste terrible, one pretty tasty. But how do you tell them apart?

First, some basic structure: like black walnuts and many other nuts, hickories have two coverings around their nutmeat. The outer husk is bright green and wonderfully spicy-smelling when the nut falls off the tree, but ages to a hard, dark brown shell. Often, you can see four lines in the husk, running from top to bottom, cutting it into quarters. The inner shell is a lighter brown, and difficult to crack. So before you go to all that trouble, look for these differences:

comparison of mockernut, bitternut, and pignut hickory - carya tomentosa, carya cordiformus, carya glabra
Mockernut Bitternut Pignut
Vanderbilt has more comparison images for all the North American species of hickory.
Mockernut (Carya tomentosa), on the far left in this picture, is usually the largest nut, with the thickest husk. The husk often breaks into four pieces and starts falling off the nut on its own.

Bitternut (Carya cordiformus), in the middle, has ridges along part of the four lines in its husk. The husk is thinner than a mockernut's.

Pignut (Carya glabra/ovalis) has a little snout on the end of the husk. On the few I've messed around with, the husk was even thinner than a bitternut's, and very hard to remove from the shell underneath.

And which one should you try eating? Bitternut is bitter; pignut is only fit for pigs. But mockernut? It's pretty good. The only problem is, you can't crack them with a normal nutcracker -- they're too hard. (The name comes from the Dutch Moker noot, or "heavy hammer nut".) In the field, we've been able to smash them between two rocks with some success. At home, we use a heavy hammer.
hickory tree
Hickory tree in Sligo Creek

In the wild: Hickories are scattered throughout the woods of the Washington, DC area. I found all three species within about a mile of each other in our local Sligo Creek Park.

This is probably the easiest time of year to identify them, because their fallen nuts will catch your eye -- as long as the squirrels haven't gotten to them. The trees have deeply furrowed bark with patterns that almost look like braids.

All species have compound leaves, but they have differing numbers of leaflets (pignuts have 5-7 leaflets per leaf, as pictured here; mockernuts 7-9; bitternuts 7-11). They turn a pretty yellow in the fall.
Old Hickory
Photo credit: tlindenbaum
In your yard: Hickory is on the list of trees we might plant as we try to replace the shade from the oak tree that came down in our yard during Hurricane Irene -- but we're looking more at shagbark and shellbark hickories, which produce larger, tastier nuts.

Shellbark and shagbark are both listed in the USDA plants database as native to the Washington, DC area, but we've never seen them actually producing nuts. There is a tree that looks like it's either shellbark or shagbark right along Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, but we've never seen nuts under it.

The main thing to know about planting hickories is that they all grow fairly slowly, and it can take them thirty to forty years before they start producing nuts.

We like to picture ourselves still living in this house forty years from now, but if we plant a hickory tree, it will be mostly for the next generation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Calendar: International Coastal Cleanup, September 17 and on

The Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup engages people around the world to remove trash and debris from the world's beaches and waterways, identify the sources of debris, and change the behaviors that cause ocean trash in the first place. This year's cleanup is this Saturday, September 17.

You don't have to go all the way to the beach to help out. What falls into our local waterways eventually makes its way out to the Chesapeake Bay and on to the ocean. So find the closest site to you and spend a couple of hours keeping that trash out of the water.

Here are the events that were listed when we checked a week ago. Links are to the sign up page for each cleanup.

Saturday, September 17:

Anacostia River at Anacostia Park, with the Anacostia Watershed Society and others, 8:30 AM Daingerfield Island off the GW Memorial Parkway, with Clean Virginia Waterways, 9:00 AM
Roosevelt Island by Kayak, 9:00 AM
Riverside Park on the GW Memorial Parkway, 9:00 AM
Cabin John Stream, 2:00 PM
Four Mile Run at Barcroft Park, with Arlingtontonians for a Clean Environment, 1:00 PM

Additional cleanups in October:

Rock Creek, September 24 at 9:30 AM
Sligo Creek, September 24 at 9:00 AM
Great Falls VA, September 25 at 10:00 AM
Alexandria Seaport Center, with Alexandria Seaport Foundation, October 8 at 9:00 AM
Lake Accotink Park, October 15 at 9:00 AM
Oronco Bay Park, with the City of Alexandria, October 15 at 9:00 AM
Hidden Oaks Nature Center, October 15 at 9:00 AM
Huntley Meadows, October 15 at 9:00 AM

As always, there are lots more events on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Things to Look For In September

We've spent this week meeting with contractors about what needs to be done to fix our house after our huge oak tree fell on it. Sunday we finally meet with the insurance adjuster. But in between, we're still trying to get out and enjoy everything that September has to offer. So much! Now if it would just stop raining...

What else are you seeing outside?
We'd love to hear about it.

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Photo credit: Metric X
The goldenrods in our yard are beautiful right now. Open sunny areas should be full of their yellow glow. Be sure to look closely for all the cool little critters that are attracted to the bright flowers.
common ragweed in bloom
Photo credit: oceansdesetoiles

Ragweed is also blooming: the scourge of the fall allergy sufferers of Washington, DC. Unlike goldenrod, which attracts all kinds of pollinating insects, ragweed relies on the wind to spread its pollen. I just wish it wouldn't spread it into my nose. This is one thing that the rain makes better: those airborne pollen particles get sogged down and don't fly around as much.
Black Walnut Hulls
Photo credit: knitting iris

Black Walnuts are starting to fall from trees all over the DC metro area. They're a hard nut to crack, which could explain why they sell for $14 a pound. Pick up a few for yourself and see what all the fuss is about.
pawpaw fruits
Pawpaws by dmitri_66

Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to the DC area. In groves of mature trees, you can find them littering the ground, ready for eating. Of course, you'll have to beat the raccoons and opossums to them.
Find enough and you can make pawpaw-walnut cookies.

Chicken of the woods by girlguyed

Chicken of the woods is a hard-to-mistake and hard-to-match mushroom. We found several with all the rain in August...keep an eye out in September as well.

Male goldfinch by ehpien

Goldfinches live in the DC area year-round, but we seem to see more of them at this time of year as they come to feed on the seedheads in our flower garden. They're such a pretty little bird.

Spicebush berries by The Natural Capital

Spicebush is a common understory shrub in our local forests. In the early spring, it's got pretty yellow flowers. Over the course of the summer, the pollinated flowers transformed into little green berries. And soon, they will be turning bright red. Also, keep an eye out for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, who you can sometimes found curled up inside a leaf. In my opinion, they're one of the best-looking caterpillars around!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Calendar: Mushrooms and Paw Paws

One of the many colorful mushrooms we found this week
All this rain has been pushing up lots of mushrooms. We're headed to the Mycological Association of Washington meeting tonight with a whole box of them -- at the beginning of every meeting, and over the social break, there are experts who will help identify any mushrooms you bring in. We want to see how many we were able to identify correctly ahead of time!

Tonight's main presentation will be by Leon Shernoff, the Editor of "Mushroom: The Journal of Wild Mushrooms," on boletes: the incredible, colorful diversity of this family of mushrooms, and examples of how and why name changes occur in the fungi. "Three hundred years ago, all gilled mushrooms were placed in the genus Agaricus. Back then, all pored mushrooms were also placed in the genus Boletus. While Agaricus has long since been split into hundreds of smaller groups, the boletes have only had a few genera broken off...Come and learn what some of those small groups in the boletes are, and why some of them are now being recognized as new genera." Free, at the Kensington Park Library, 7 PM.

MAW may also schedule a mushroom hunting "foray" for this weekend, since the shrooms are so plentiful. Sign up for the meetup group, or send an email to to be added to the mailing list for forays.

There are still a few spots left in our wild edibles walk to look for Paw Paws along the Potomac this Saturday. We'll stop for any interesting mushrooms as well, especially edible ones.

There are many other great things on our calendar this week, including some volunteer opportunities for the National Day of Service on Sunday, bike rides, canoeing, and hikes in and around Washington. Enjoy!