Chinese Chives in the Season of Seeds

October 5, 2017

Several years ago, when we were looking at our present home with thoughts of perhaps purchasing it, I noticed some Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum, nira in Japanese) growing in a flower bed.  They are not commonly cultivated in central Maine and I commented to one of the owners that I was glad to see them there.  An ethnic Chinese who had immigrated from Vietnam to Maine, the owner smiled politely, but also winced a little, a signal to me that there was something not one hundred percent positive about these plants.

After we bought the house and settled in, I was happy with the Chinese chives.  They emerge early each spring and, along with dandelion greens and Western chives, are always the first homegrown bounty we enjoy in the new growing season.  Plus, they keep on contributing to our dinners through the summer until late August when they produce an impressive mass of white flower clusters each cluster growing onion-family fashion at the tip of a tall, leafless stalk.

I did come to learn, however, what it is about these plants that probably made the former owner grimace; they propagate aggressively, both by underground rhizome and, more significantly, by seed.  The seeds can scatter far and wide and once a new plant takes root, it can be very hard to dig it up.

Their robust success at propagation did not make me stop liking these plants—on the contrary, I find their vigor reassuring—but it did prompt me to establish the habit of deadheading the flowers each fall before the seeds completely mature.

One hundred bold stalks,
nine thousand green pods of  life—
Chinese chives in fall.

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Halloween in September

September 8, 2017

Vivid mushroom mounds,
sprung from nowhere overnight—
real as my own hands.

We had little rain during August this year, so when there was a long, heavy downpour a few days ago it felt good, needed.  The following morning, as everything seemed to expand and rejoice in the new moisture, I noticed a set of stunning orange clusters—of I wasn’t sure what—at the base of an old red maple tree near our drive. My first thought was flowers—chrysanthemums perhaps—but I quickly revised that to mushrooms.  There were three abundant clumps of what are known as Jack O’Lantern Mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) nestled right against the trunk.

Despite their seemingly festive color, there was something uncanny for me about these mushrooms. They had not been their yesterday. They seemed to have materialized out of thin air in virtually no time at all.  The ability to appear as though by magic is something shared by all mushrooms, the fruiting heads of macrofungi.  Mushrooms do not get big through cell division, they come up with all their cells already in place, but tiny and packed tight.  When conditions are right they can expand in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.  Their “parent” organism, networks of thread-like mycelium, exist out of our sight in soil, leaf mold, dead wood.  Fungi are neither plant, animal, or mineral.  They are their own thing.

The Jack O’Lantern mushrooms’ natural strangeness as a mushroom was amplified for me by some specific, Halloween-like qualities they have.  It turns out that they are toxic for humans (though usually not fatally so), and they are reputed to produce bioluminescence in their gills.  I spent twenty minutes sitting quietly with the mushrooms in the dark last night.  I can’t report success in observing a green glow, but I enjoyed being in their remarkable company as the crickets strummed their familiar evening chorus and the leaves of the maple rustled overhead.

The Bugs of August

September 2, 2017

             Late August and early September seem to be a time of significant bug activity, but these performances are carried out by­­­ a cast of characters quite different from those featured in the dramatic hatchings and swarms of late spring and early summer.

            It is in August that I first start to notice the intricately patterned webs of orb-weaving spiders.  The webs spring up seemingly overnight at the corner of a window frame or strung from the branches of a garden shrub.  I expect that the spiders have been present for a while, but that it is only now that they have grown more numerous that I have become aware of them and their work. 

            Yellow jackets, insects that I had never noticed in June or July, now slip one after the other from a spiraling paper nest that I had not known was there. Maybe it had been there, only small, but the yellow jackets–their numbers increasing exponentially as each batch of newly hatched workers helps to raise the next–have made the nest suddenly huge and obvious. 

            Amongst the familiar crowd of pollinators visiting the last blooms of the oregano is a new-comer, a beautiful, blue-black wasp with an astonishing, thread-like waist.  It too was not there before.    

            And, of course, the crickets, the stars among the late-summer insect musicians, only begin to strum their haunting mating calls in August.  Now, with the season progressed, the bolder males take the risk of calling during daylight hours, increasing the chance of attracting a mate, but upping the risk of being seen by predators.

            Vivid as all this end-of-summer life is, it will not last long; the first killing frosts almost always come by mid-October.

Shadows in the grass—
Spiders guard eggs, wasps their nests,
crickets call by day.


Male cricket sheltering in grass.

Early-Changing Maple Branches

August 25, 2017

Someone I spoke with a few days ago in Massachusetts told me that recently, when she was packing up to leave her summer place in Maine, she noticed that one of the trees had a single branch that had turned red early.  She said this happened every year.  Always the same tree, always the same branch, always by mid-August.

I knew exactly what phenomenon she was talking about.  I’m pretty sure the tree in question was a Red Maple.  They sometimes do that.

Some years ago, I had gotten to know just such an early turning maple branch along Route 6A on Cape Cod.  I always looked for it as our family set out from my parents’ house on the drive back to Maine in mid-August.  It was always there.  Here in Central Maine, too, near our yard there is a Red Maple with an early-turning branch.  Each year in August without fail the same branch turns red while the rest of the woods is all solidly green.

I realize that this early onset of color change probably indicates that the branch is stressed in some way.  But the fact that the tree and its special branch continue pretty robustly from year to year is reassuring.  From experience I know that these branches can survive for decades.  For me they are a reminder that trees, like us humans, and indeed all organic things, live lives linked to sunlight and its fluctuations.

In the rich green days
of zucchini, crickets, corn–
  one red maple branch.

Bumblebees

August 10, 2017

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling an attraction to bumblebees; they are as furry as teddy bears, move around slowly enough for us to get a good look at them, hang out in sweet-smelling gardens and meadows, pollinate plants, and do us humans no harm–unless of course we do something thoroughly provoking to merit it.  We are just turning the corner into summer’s end here, and the worker bees are present in good numbers.  One guesses their bodies register and respond to the gradually diminishing hours of daylight, but they seem undeterred, going about their business as usual.

Neither rushed nor slow,
bumblebees foraging in
sweet oregano

 Bumblebee foraging in creeping thyme (which they seem to favor as much as oregano).

Summer Moon

July 10, 2017

Summer days in Maine aren’t always perfect, but they often are…sunny and dry with a touch of breeze and just enough warmth to create a sense of vacation-time ease.  The trees and grass in their plant wisdom know that this optimal season for making sugar from sunlight does not last long and they throw themselves into the business of photosynthesis with abandon.  When night falls, the warm, oxygen-rich air beckons us out under the trees.  If the moon is full, as it was last night, the beauty is enough to seem uncanny.  Who wouldn’t be drawn to this vibrant world of clear silver light and the velvet darkness between leaves.

Road of silver light
creatures travel in their dreams—
full moon of summer

Spring Rain and Young Lady Ferns

May 26. 2017

We have had a spate of rainy days in this season when “all danger of frost is past” (or so we hope).  It’s hard not to feel disappointed after having waited so long for real spring-like weather to wake to yet another day of rain and intermittent showers.  At the same time, though, it’s clear that the abundant moisture has been good for the plants. The sugar maples are spreading their tender hand-shaped leaves wider and wider. The mature clumps of lady ferns extend long, graceful fronds ever higher while new individuals sprout up all around. This wet world can feel quiet and subdued, but it’s beautiful and glows with life.

Countless tiny ferns
arching over rain-soaked moss—
Green, this air I breathe.