A Newly Found Resident

I write Nature’s Library to nurture your curiosity, to prod you to get out and read nature’s stories, and to deepen our respect for all forms of life and their fragile habitats and ecosystems.

Practicing what I preach, the glory of a sunny, cold afternoon, with 3-4 inches of fresh snow atop the hardpack underneath, beckoned me to set out bushwhacking on my snowshoes. Exploring sites I seldom visit, I found myself in a bright, windless opening on a southeastern slope - an old, overgrazed pasture with scattered small white pines sprouting in the mineral soil. Tangles of blackberries, a few scraggly aspens, and opportunistic apple trees basked in the southern exposure, all circled by the tracks of hungry deer. Pausing there to restore my vitamin D level and read this sunny habitat, I spotted a large, healthy hawthorn tree, sprawling across a patch of sunshine – the most impressive hawthorn I’ve ever encountered and the first I’ve seen in our nearby habitats. How did it happen to be there?

Hawthorns, also known as thorn apples, may-trees, or simply hawberries further south, are a native plant in eastern North America (unlike apples) as well as in temperate Eurasia and northern Africa. They may present themselves as hedge shrubs or as small trees on field and forest margins. The Enclosure Acts of rural Britain centuries ago led landowners to create boundaries of dense hawthorn hedges; to this day they’re as effective as prickly acacia hedges in Africa or our own barbed wire fences.

Some paleontologists believe that the profusion of this species’ big, tough thorns may have evolved to defend against the mega-fauna herbivores of the Ice Ages. Adaptive to many temperate micro-climates, soils, hydrology, and light exposure, the hawthorn genus Crataegus, over hundreds of thousands of years, has spawned nearly 100 species and another dozen hybrids, and nearly as many local Hawthorn names across N. America, among them Quebec H., Carolina H., Grand Rapids H., Fort Bend H., Kansas H., Mississippi H., Jack’s H., Jones’s H., Stinking H., etc., but not Nathaniel H.

Hawthorns, like apples and pears, are in the Rose family, producing showy flowers and pome fruits, not berries. With such diversity, identifying the species of my newfound tree called for some reference checks. I’m grateful that my friend Charles Fergus wrote the useful book Trees of New England, a compilation of natural history details for each of the region’s species. His description of the Red-fruited Hawthorn (Crataegus coccinia) meets my observations of two-inch straight thorns and apple tree-like structure. I’ll look forward to the white flowers of June and the tiny bright red fruits of late summer. The fruits are similar to small crabapples and are favorites of frugivorous birds and mammals. Like many other tree seeds, hawthorn seeds are dispersed as they pass through birds. That solves the mystery of how my tree happened to be here, thanks to a passing Robin, Blue Jay, Cedar Waxwing, or Grosbeak.

Curiosity for All Seasons

My experience with this hawthorn tree reminded me of other “discoveries.” In November, while walking a hedgerow near home, I came upon a Seckel Pear tree with leaves and fruit green still attached. This is not a native tree (I had to look it up!); the Seckel Pear species (Pyrus communis) was brought from western Europe. It thrived in Pennsylvania in the 18th century and has expanded its range across most of the temperate regions of the U.S. as a popular orchard variety, and it has also escaped from cultivation through the same co-evolved dispersal of its seeds.

On another occasion – a spring day several years ago - I was with a group of birders walking the floodplain fields near the confluence of the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers. With few birds of interest in view, Dr. Tom Ziobrowski and I examined a healthy, large broadleaf tree thriving just a few yards from the riverbank. The tree’s majestic size and distinctive nobby, corky bark sparked our interest and confirmed that this was a Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). This solitary tree was well north of its mapped range, but within its species’ preferred floodplain habitat. Hackberry is yet another beneficiary of hungry birds and mammals (foxes, raccoons, skunks) distributing its seeds.

With these and your own experiences perusing “nature’s library,” encountering something new can be the ultimate thrill for the curious. Chuck Fergus’s newest book, Make a Home for Wildlife: Creating Habitat on Your Land, Backyard to Many Acres, offers a rich array of practical strategies to promote the sharing of your landscape with the needs of wild plants and animals. Taking the steps he recommends in this comprehensive guide will nurture your own curiosity and will promise those thrills.

Winter Science: Consider the Great Backyard Bird Count

You also may have such a thrill by joining in February’s international Great Backyard Bird Count. The count takes place on February 15-18 at any location of your choice. A public introduction on how to participate, co-hosted by NEK Audubon and the Fairbanks Museum, will be offered on February 9 at the Museum. For details, contact Leila Nordmann at the Museum 748-2372 or email: nekaudubon1@gmail.com.

I hope to see you there being curious!