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The colors that paint a butterfly’s wing

November 19, 2012

As someone born in the early part of fall I’ve always had a soft spot for the transitional months between summer and winter.  The mosquitos disappear, gardens are harvested, and there’s this interesting transition in the landscape when hidden things are unveiled as  the clutter of leaves depart.

Jumpin’ Pumpkins

For the last two summers we’ve had a little pumpkin patch in the yard where these orange beauties get loads of sun and have plenty of room to stretch themselves out. This past summer we witnessed our first ever pumpkin theft by a black bear, but otherwise the pumpkins are generally left alone to get big and bigger as the summer wears on. These five pumpkins were designed by a fairy-band of children under the ages of nine – with only a little bit of help from a knife wielding adult.  I find it hard to pick a favourite amongst them, though the understated one that is second from the left has a deceptive simplicity to it.

Sweet Crab Apples

Among the apple family, crab apples are an acquired taste. My grandmother had a fantastic crab apple tree in her small back yard on Stella Ave, a yard that was completely devoted to a garden, the apple tree, and a rickety garage.  Apple trees are quite strong, like a lot of fruit bearing trees, and we spent many hours up in the limbs, picking the occasionally apple and wincing as we ate it.

However, crab apples become a wonderfully different apple in the late fall and early winter (if they hang around that along) – becoming deliciously sweet as they literally ferment on the tree.  My naive understanding of the process is that the starches in the apple begin converting to sugar in reaction to the cold weather. Either way, it’s great to walk past the tree in mid-winter and grab an apple while out for a hike or ski.  The deer also appreciate the apples hanging around to provide some food for them when their isn’t much else around.

Falling Leaves

I’m not sure which season I like more when it comes to leaves – spring or fall? As someone who loves wandering through winter trails, I’ve come to appreciate how much easier it is to pick out little details – like a hawk’s nest at the top of a broken tree, a spruce seedling previously hidden in the tall grass, or a burrow carved into the soil behind a log.  When summer finally sets in, the forest almost becomes claustrophobic to me, as most of the sight lines get shut down by an indistinguishable mass of leaves. When Fall returns, the trees take on wonderful hues – the oaks become brown, yellow and orange, while the nanny berry becomes purplish and red.

Poplar colonies are really interesting to observe in the fall as well, as an entire colony  can shed their leaves simultaneously.I guess that’s why an aspen forest can change so quickly from one with leaves to barren stalks after a windstorm.

Resources for Woodland Wanderers

I only began learning about trees 7 years ago. The first step is to spend a lot of time in nature, there is no short cut. Planting, transplanting, pruning, harvesting fruit or medicine from roots, bark or cuttings, trail walking, and gathering seeds are all fantastic ways to slowly begin to appreciate the habitat around us.

To get my bearings, I’ve relied heavily on a few books to guide me along the way. The first book you should get is Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland.  You can find this book at most of the big book retailers in town, and I’ve also seen it at MEC.  Not hard to find, portable, well illustrated with photos, and well laid out for quick referencing.

Another book I’ve enjoyed is Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Boreal Forest.  You can find a copy of this at the Living Prairie Museum – either for borrowing or purchase. Both this book and the Lone Pine Press book have lots of interesting stories, purported medicinal uses of plants, functional uses, and some lore as well.

The Government of Manitoba has also produced this Field Guide to Native Trees of Manitoba.  I’ve never used this, but it looks good at a glance and certainly identifies what grows locally, as opposed to a generic field guide that could include species that you won’t find around here.

Parting Thoughts

Here’s a favourite little poem of mine by Rabindranath Tagore (titled Sphulinga 201) from a compilation of his called the One and the Many.

The grandest rainbow’s a far off thing

I prefer what my patch of earth can bring:

The colors that paint a butterfly’s wing.