Poison Ivy’s Secret

Vines on fence

Poison Ivy loves edges

This summer millions of Americans will have unhappy encounters with poison ivy. For most people, the result is a patch of itchy bumpy skin that goes away after a few days to a week or so. Unfortunate others will develop a serious reaction that includes severe itching and swelling.

 

The very best way to not get a case of poison ivy is to avoid the plant and its culprit – urushiol, an oil that causes the allergic reaction. It’s on the plant’s leaves, in the vines and the sap.

Avoiding urushiol is a surefire way of avoiding a poison ivy rash, but many people have trouble identifying the plant. Fortunately, poison ivy has a secret.  Knowing it helps people avoid the plant.

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Squirrel Condominiuims

Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests.  Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs.  When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.

Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion.  From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.

Dens

Squirrel In Den

Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.

When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings.  If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark.  Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them.  Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.

Dreys

Squirrel Condominium

Squirrel Condominium

Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.

Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong.  Inside, the nest is dry and warm.

When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals.  Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!

Osage Orange or Hedge Apple

This fall we’ve noticed Osage Orange fruits for sale in grocery stores and roadside stands. They are fascinating and have a delightful fresh citrus scent.

These are often called Hedge Apples, and many people call the tree they grow on Hedge. More properly the tree is called an Osage Orange and the fruits are Osage Oranges. To add confusion some people, call the tree Bodark because its springy tough wood was once used to make bows.

The Osage Orange once lived in a relatively small area of Texas and Oklahoma but because it is tough, drought resistant, and thorny it was commonly planted in places outside its native range. The tree’s branches twist in many directions with thorn-studded twigs. When planted in a row, the trees created a living fence that cattle wouldn’t cross. In the days before barbed wire was invented millions of Osage Oranges were planted for fences.

The wood is hard and heavy and is outstanding for firewood, but cutting it is challenging because of all the thorns.

Does a Hedge Apple in the basement keep insects away?  Many people think so and annually buy or collect a few. We think it’s an ineffective way to keep out insects and find caulking entry points better for excluding bugs from our home.

In recent years an oil extracted from hedge apples has been used in shampoo and hair conditioners, and many people love the product. It is marketed as POMIFERA in honor of the tree’s Latin name Maclura pomifera.  Todd Johnson, a native Bloomfield, Iowan, has cashed in on the Hedge Apple industry.   

Hungry squirrels sometimes eat the seeds hidden inside hedge apples and livestock sometimes dine on them but they are inedible to humans.

There’s no harm in putting a few hedge apples in the basement but don’t count on them to keep away bugs.

Summer Wood for Winter Use

Woodstove

We love the cozy heat of wood burning in the woodstove.

Much of our heat at Winding Pathways comes from our two woodstoves. We love the cozy warmth given by our stoves but there’s more to it than just heat.

The wood we burn comes from trees that snatched carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the past 100 years. Photosynthesis transformed carbon and water into wood, so we’re not contributing to global warming as much as if we burned coal, oil, or natural gas. And we get our wood free, thus helping the family budget.

Wood heat isn’t completely without cost. Each year we hire a company to clean and inspect our chimney and stove. So, we lay out some cash but far less than for conventional fuel. Wood heat also requires sweat equity to cut, stack and move firewood. At this point, it’s worth it. An added benefit is the security we feel when gazing at our six cords of stored wood. When storms shut down utilities we’ll stay warm.

Summer is an ideal time to prepare for autumn’s crisp nights.

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A Tale of Free Trees

This is a tale of free trees. Our friend, Marilynn Keller, learned how to plant the best tree species in her yard at no cost and with little work.

She simply didn’t mow a tiny area of lawn where she wanted a tree to grow. As if by magic, a White Oak, Sugar Maple, and Shagbark Hickory sprouted there this spring. Although the spot is too small for three trees Marilynn can simply decide which one she wants and mow the others off.

Small Oak

Likely a squirrel buried a nut that has sprouted.

Last fall an industrious squirrel gathered acorns and hickory nuts and buried them in her yard. The squirrel might have forgotten his hidden cache or perhaps died. Either way the unrecovered nuts sprouted.

Although squirrels often eat maple seeds, it’s most likely that Marilynn’s baby maple sprouted because a gust of wind pulled the ripe seed off a nearby tree and it helicoptered to her yard.

While Maples are usually easy to transplant, and are widely sold by nurseries, not so Hickories. Although any of the many Hickory species make outstanding shade trees, as soon as a nut sprouts it sends an enormous taproot deep into the ground. Moving a hickory is difficult and often unsuccessful. Commercial nurseries avoid them.

The same goes for white oaks, one of our favorite trees. It’s difficult to buy one to plant in the yard. Because they are slow growing and challenging to transplant, few nurseries bother with them.  Fortunately, they readily sprout on their own.

Maples along drive

In autumn Maples glow with color.

Anyone living where there are mature Hickory, Oak, or Maple trees nearby can use Marilynn’s tree planting method.  Simply don’t mow a patch of lawn where a tree is desired. Odds are one will appear on its own next spring. If more sprout than the spot can support just mow the others off and put wire screening around the new tree to protect it from hungry cottontails and deer.

If a tree sprouts in the wrong place it can be easily transplanted with just one shovel of dirt. Move it before the tiny tree has grown a long taproot.

Lawn Discoveries!

We never spray our lawn at Winding Pathways. Occasionally, that yields an exciting discovery like what happened in early May.

Oak Seeding

Rich shows the tiny oak seeding.

We wanted to plant a tree, preferably an oak, on the south side of our garage. But, we got busy and never found time to buy or plant one. One morning Rich, while walking across the lawn to fetch the morning newspaper, spotted a baby white oak tree that sprouted exactly where we wanted to plant one. It was serendipity.

Seed Banks”

Plant ecologists talk about the “seed bank.” In land that hasn’t been greatly disturbed by plowing, spraying or compacting of soil, seeds of desirable native plants often remain dormant in the soil for years or decades. Then, when conditions are right they’ll sprout like magic. Other desirable plants spread their seed through the wind or enlist the help of a hungry squirrel to carry and bury a nut or acorn. That’s probably how our new oak got planted.

Before mowing walk across your unsprayed lawn. You may discover a plant you want that is starting to grow. Just mow around it to let it thrive. Mark it with a stake or fence it off from rabbits and deer. If the plant is not quite in the right place, remember that tiny plants are usually easy to move with just a shovel full of dirt.

Volunteer Oak

We protect volunteer trees that grow where we want them.

About seven years ago we found another baby oak in our lawn. We protected it from mowing and ran a screen around it to keep hungry deer away. It’s now about seven feet tall and growing rapidly.

That black oak didn’t cost a penny and will grace our yard long after we’re gone.

Another way to go about natural or plant and wildlife friendly yards is to deliberately plant certain forbs and grasses to attract a variety of beneficial insects and interesting birds and other wildlife.