A Northwoods Almanac for October 28 – November 10, 2016 by John Bates
Mary and spent all last week hiking along Minnesota’s north shore on the rugged Superior Hiking Trail and in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. One of the plants that we noticed growing everywhere in the rocky terrain was bearberry, or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. The genus name derives from the Greek arktos for “bear,” and staphule for a “bunch of grapes.” Uva-ursi comes from the Latin, meaning “grape of the bear.” Bearberry is also known to the Ojbiwe people as Makwa-miskomin, or “Bear’s Red Berry.” So, this small, prostrate, evergreen shrub, which is otherwise visually rather unremarkable, clearly has a connection to bears. The plant is circumboreal, meaning it grows around the world primarily in boreal forests. Bearberry was used in the 13th century by the Welsh “Physicians of Myddfai,” and recommended for medicinal use in the London Pharmacopoeia in 1788, though it was probably in use long before (see A Modern Herbal, Volume 1). Medical uses of bearberry leaves were recognized by early Romans, Native Americans, and American settlers, and it’s still used medicinally in Poland and other countries, in particular for treating urinary tract disease. In Scandinavia, bearberry is even used commercially to tan leather because of its high tannin content.
For the Ojibwe, the black bear – Makwa – has always been associated with medicine and healing, “and is said to be the guardian of those who heal,” according to Mary Siisip Geniusz in her wonderful new book Plants Have So Much to Give to Us, All We Have to Do is Ask.
Yet another name for bearberry is Kinnikinnick, from the Algonquin for “mixture.” Used as a smudge or smoked in a sacred pipe, bearberry combined with white cedar “is essential for the carrying of prayers into the Spirit World,” according to Geniusz. She notes that “the exact ingredients of kinnikinnick differ from one group to another, and even from one individual member of a group to another, but the two plants that are necessary to form the bases of the mixture are always cedar and bearberry.”
The bright red berries which ripen in autumn are about the size of a small currant, smooth and glossy, with a tough skin enclosing an insipid mealy pulp, with five one-seeded stones – I tried one and spit it out. They’re edible, but in no way desirable.
Black bears apparently do eat the fruits in the autumn, but they can be especially important to bears in the early spring when they emerge hungry from their winter dens. The fruits are also eaten by a few songbirds and five species of grouse and wild turkey, but are seldom a first choice, while deer are known to browse the leaves.
A Drab Autumn
Lots of folks have commented that this fall’s leaf color was rather muted. In particular, reds seemed to be lacking. I agree, and I think it was because of three things – too much rainfall, too little sunshine, and too many warm nights. Here’s why:
As a tree dismantles itself in preparation for winter, it still has to produce enough energy to send nutrients down to its roots and into its tissues, so photosynthesis continues. But a tree’s light-capturing equipment no longer works as efficiently in the fall as chlorophyll decreases, so the tree’s leaf tissues can be damaged by too much sun. Red pigments called anthocyanins are then produced to protect the autumn leaves by blocking some of the sunlight. These pigments are not present in the leaf throughout the growing season, but are actively produced towards the end of summer.
We usually get the deepest red colors in the fall after a good growing season with ample water, and we certainly had that this summer. But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Too many rainy and cloudy days diminish the color palette, resulting in muted autumn foliage. Without bright sunlight, the trees don't need the added protection that the red pigments provide, so they don't bother producing them.
Also part of the recipe for maximum fall colors are warm, sunny days followed by cool but not freezing nights. The cool nights inhibit the movement of sugars from the leaves, trapping the sugars long enough that anthocyanins can be formed.
Here again, too much of a good thing is a bad thing – the recipe sours if it’s too cold and we have early hard freezes. This fall, however, has been the opposite – remarkably warm with many areas just now experiencing a frost. Our nights just haven’t been cool enough overall for maximizing color.
The bottom line? Colors production relies on lots of sunlight, near-freezing temperatures at night, and dry weather in the fall. These combine to increase the sugar concentration in tree sap, triggering the tree to release more anthocyanins in a last-ditch effort to gather up energy to get through the winter.
One last factor also has to be added in: wind. Lack of wind in the autumn prolongs the display, while wind or heavy rain can cause the leaves to be lost before they develop their full color potential. I’m unsure if we had more or less wind this fall than usual, but we certainly saw a lot of leaves fall without first turning turning color.
On 10/24 and 10/25 in Manitowish, we had our second and third frosts of the autumn. In looking at temperature data, however, the Minocqua area had yet to have a frost. I wonder if this is a record for our area for the least number of frosts as well as the latest frosts.
Most leaves are now down except for red oaks which hold onto their leaves into the early spring. The last tamaracks are losing their needles, though there are still some bogs and lakeshores reflecting their beautiful smoky gold.
Howard Peitsch in Minocqua sent me a photo of a tufted titmouse at one of his feeders. While the tufted titmouse is a species that is gradually moving north with climate change, it’s still very uncommon in our area and a great find!
On the hikes Mary and I took in northern Minnesota, we came across many plants that interested us, but two in particular caught our eye. One was eyelash cup, a tiny, bright orange-red fungi that’s ringed with hairs “any fashion model would be so lucky to have” (Cora Mollen in her book Fascinating Fungi of the Northwoods). We saw clusters of these commonly on decaying wood.
The second was smooth rock tripe, a brown leaf-like lichen that grows on rock faces. Apparently rock tripes can survive up to 62 weeks of drought in some species, a handy adaptation for a species that lives on large boulders. Mary has been experimenting recently with natural dyes, and she’ll have to try smooth rock tripe – it’s said to make a natural purple dye.
It’s been warm pretty much everywhere. September 2016 was the warmest September in 136 years of modern record-keeping, according to the monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). September 2016's temperature was only 0.004 degrees Celsius warmer than the previous warmest September in 2014; however, it was 0.91 degrees Celsius warmer than the mean September temperature from 1951-1980.
This means 11 of the past 12 consecutive months dating back to October 2015 have set new monthly high-temperature records. The monthly analysis by the GISS team is assembled from publicly available data acquired by nearly 6,300 meteorological stations around the world, ship- and buoy-based instruments measuring sea surface temperature, and Antarctic research stations.
On 10/30, look in the southwest at dusk for Saturn to be about 3 degrees north of Venus. On 10/31, the moon will be its furthest all year from the earth – 252,686 miles. For planet viewing in November, at dusk look for Venus brilliant but low in the southwest, as well as Saturn in the southwest, and Mars in the south-southwest. At dawn, look for Jupiter very bright and rising in the east-southeast. We fall below 10 hours of sunlight on 11/3. November 7 marks the mid-season point between autumn equinox and winter solstice.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI.