The Wandering Naturalist
For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road. Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers. My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip. My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.
On the route from Roanoke to Richmond, the hot hazy surroundings provided an atmosphere which reminded me Christmas. The need to think about cooler climes is a very necessary thing when in the middle of a very unseasonal heat wave. Signs of the Jolly season are here in the form of Mistletoe, Holly, and Santa’s beard.
On Roanoke Island, at the site of the famous “lost colony” settled briefly by the first Englishmen in the New World, the Red Maples sport clusters of mistletoe. You may not have realized it, but the “kissing plant” is a parasite. It requires the host tissue of a tree in order to grow. This presence of this evergreen becomes obvious once the host trees lose their leaves. Take a look here at healthy cluster growing like a branch directly out of the trunk of a somewhat unhealthy maple. Think of that sickly maple when you hang a sprig of mistletoe three months from now.
Holly trees grow as an understory tree beneath the canopy of the oak/pine forest. We tend not to think of Holly attaining treelike proportions, but it can grow to 30 feet or so. Take a look here at a cluster of the familiar evergreen leaves and the not so familiar patchy gray trunk. Soon the surrounding oaks will drop their leaves, leaving the Long-leaf pines and pyramidal Holly trees to carry on the tradition of Christmas green (although there will be no snow to complete the scene).
I am reminded of the holiday tradition of fooling young children as we passed the fields of cotton growing in southern Virginia. My father made a point to adhere some strands of cotton to the bricks near the table where we left snacks for Santa on Christmas Eve. In the morning we found positive proof of St. Nick’s visit in the form of small strands of his beard. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered to my shock and horror that my old man was messing with us kids. He knew that we wouldn’t investigate the strands to reveal that they were really plant material. From that time on, I vowed to do the same thing with my kids. In this ploy I was fairly successful – just ask my offspring.
As a devote northerner, I could not resist the temptation to pull over and grab a specimen of a cotton plant. All of the back roads are littered with pieces of cotton. It is harvesting season here and the raw cotton is apparently flying off the trucks heading for the mills. If you are like me, you probably have never seen the actual plant that Santa’s beard comes from.
Take a look here at the plant itself – a stout looking thing about two and a half foot high. The leaves (see here) look somewhat like a maple leaf and the Cotton bolls themselves look like small limes (see here). The pods burst open and yield their product in surprisingly pure form (see here). Each pod produces the equivalent of 4 or 5 cotton balls.
One could write a history of the United States based on the cultivation of this plant. It is safe to say that it was one of the primary causes of the Civil War. The invention of Eli Whitney’s Gin – made to extract the seeds out of the raw product – alone precipitated the necessity of slavery and ignited the moral responsibility to end it. Today the plant still holds sway in this country, so is well worth examining.