Goldenrod Ball Galls

One of the things I love about dyeing with plants is that plants are amazing and awe-inspiring in so many other ways, too. First of all, they create their own food from energy from the sun, and provide all of us oxygen-breathers and plant-consumers with life and sustenance. For that alone I am so grateful. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things about plants!

They are an integral part of complex inter-relationships that are not always obvious at my human eye level. I catch glimpses of some of these sometimes while I walk in the fields and woods, or when I garden. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about the intricate network of relationships between plants, animals, and microorganisms that are going on around me all the time.

Over the past several months I have noticed, and have had questions about, structures that I have found on fiber and dyeplants. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been learning.

First, let’s consider goldenrod. The kind I have used for dyeing is Solidago canadensis, I believe. I didn’t end up running any dyebaths with goldenrod this summer. Nevertheless, all summer I kept a close eye on it while it budded, bloomed, and went to seed. In the late fall, the stalks had dried and become woody. The structure of the galls on the stems was clearly visible.

Here is a photo of galls at Wentworth Farm conservation area on November 24th. I was struck by how many of these galls there were in a relatively small space:

It makes me think of a futuristic city with high rise apartments accessible by flying rocket-cars:

Generally speaking, galls work like this: an insect lays an egg on a plant, and some kind of irritation or stimulation causes the plant cells to swell up around it. The swelling makes a cozy home for the baby bug while it grows and develops. Eventually, the adult bug emerges and continues its buggy lifecycle.

The galls I photographed are, I believe, goldenrod ball galls. I identified them using two excellent resources at my school‘s library, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland and Entomology by Ellen Doris. For on-line resources, the University of Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener page and this Nature North page were very helpful.

Here are some more details about goldenrod ball galls. Goldenrod ball galls are made by the goldenrod ball gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. The adults are teeny little things, about 5 mm long, which makes me feel better about the fact that I’ve never noticed one.

In the late spring, the female fly lays eggs in the leaf bud at the tip of the stem. As soon as it hatches, the larvae drills into the bud and starts feeding. In response to the chewing, or perhaps the secretions of the larva, the goldenrod stem thickens. The larva eats the juicy and nutritious tissue inside the gall as it grows, and makes a little chamber for itself inside. It takes 3 or 4 weeks for the gall to fully form. The larvae molt a couple times through the summer and fall.

Each stage of larval development is called an “instar” which sounds sort of magical.

The third-stage larva is able to survive the winter by producing glycerol and sorbitol, which prevent its cells from damage by freezing. The third instar goes into a kind of hibernation called diapause all winter.

In the spring, the larva chews an escape tunnel through the fibers of the gall, stopping just before the outermost skin of the gall. Once it has fully metamorphosed, the adult fly doesn’t have any mouth parts. Insects plan ahead! The adult fly crawls out through the tunnel that it dug for itself earlier, then pops through the outer layer of the gall by inflating part of its head.

The adult flies only live for a couple weeks, without eating. During this time they mate and lay eggs. They do not travel far from where they are born, which is why there are often a large number of galls in a small area. The females use chemical sensors on their feet and antennae to make sure they are laying eggs on the right goldenrod species.

The exit hole is very small when the adult fly emerges. The ones that I found had holes of various sizes. Some of them had large holes that looked like they had been chipped away.

It turns out that downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees can detect the larvae inside the gall and dig them out to eat. The woodpeckers make a neat hole, but the chickadees have to chip away with their smaller beaks, so the holes they make are messier.

I’m guessing this one was made by a chickadee:

Swamp Milkweed Sightings

I first learned to identify swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2012 after discovering some lovely fibers near my sister’s apartment in Maryland. In 2015 I acquired some plants from Nasami Farm in Whately, MA for the Common School‘s fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. For all this time, I have been keeping an eye out for it “in the wild” but haven’t seen it. Until now!

This month I have been spotting swamp milkweed all over the place. The first place I noticed it was in the bluebird field at Amherst College on July 6th. Admittedly, these photos are a bit like photos of Big Foot: blurry and indistinct. Trust me, though, it is swamp milkweed!

The next place I caught a sighting was in the Lawrence Swamp area of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst. It was right in the swamp, aptly. We could see several plants further out, but ran into the same blurry Big Foot photo problem. This one was close to the edge of the trail:

Continue reading “Swamp Milkweed Sightings”

Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike

In my Fiber Fiber Everywhere post back in April, I noted that there are fiber plants all over the place where I live in Western Massachusetts. Recently I noticed a new one!

On June 26th, while walking along the dike in Hadley, I noticed a potential fiber plant that I had never noticed there before. I am pretty sure it’s Apocynum cannabinum, sometimes called common dogbane, hemp dogbane, or Indian hemp. The UMass Extension website has some helpful information for identification here. If I turn out to be wrong I will let you know. It is possible that some of the fibers I’ve seen on the trail by the river are from old dogbane stalks, and I just never realized it before.

Here’s a view of the whole plant in situ:

The flowers are white:

Continue reading “Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike”

Fiber Fiber Everywhere

When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.

I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago. Continue reading “Fiber Fiber Everywhere”

Ahh, Wood Thrushes are Back

Yesterday morning, Thursday May 3rd, I went for a walk around 7:15, as I often do, but little did I know that it would turn out to be an exceptionally inspiring walk (despite the drizzle).

First, as I came out of the little boggy wooded area behind our apartment complex into the parking lot of the JCA, I heard and saw two crows cawing away vigorously. At first I thought, two crows having a debate, or maybe just exchanging insults. Then I heard a third crow, which made me think that something a bit more interesting was going on. What are all those crows yelling about? And then, I saw something slip into the brambles and small trees by the little sunken wetland area in the center of the parking lot. I walked closer slowly, and looked carefully, and it was a fox! A gray fox, I think: very small, delicate, mostly beige, with a black back and not-very-fluffy tail. The instant that I stopped walking, turned my body, and fixed my attention on the fox, the crows stopped cawing. It was an intense moment, since I realized they had probably been shouting about the fox, and had stopped now that I had noticed it, too. I wished I knew what they were thinking. “Fox! Fox! Fox! Fox! Oh, look, a monkey. Let’s be quiet and see what the monkey does.” I watched the fox as it picked its way around the edge of the wetland area, through the bleached masses of dead cattails, and short new green growth. Maybe it was looking for frogs or other little creatures to eat, but it didn’t seem to find anything and kept on going. Then it climbed out the other side of the wetland area, trotted toward the edge of the building, and went around the corner out of sight. We see quite a lot of wildlife around here, but it was still a special treat to get to watch a fox for several minutes. I continued on my walk, and there was more excitement to come.

When I got into the woods at Amherst College, there were lots of interesting maple seeds and fallen tree-flowers on the path, so I picked up a few especially striking ones to photograph when I got home. At the moment I am very interested in the combination of bright yellow-greens and various shades of pink and maroon that are happening all over the place in small emerging leaves, flowering trees, and maple seeds. How do such bright colors blend so harmoniously? Are there optimal ratios? Which combinations do I like the best? Could I weave something with the same colors and achieve anything like the same effect? Here are some photos. The ones in bright sun I took the other day. The yellow inflorescences are from some kind of oak.

maple seeds close upmaple seeds with a greater proportion of yellowoak inflorescenceoak inflorescence with tiny leafpink and lime green maple seedsmagenta maple seedsmaple seeds with yellow-green edgesyet more maple seedsAt one point I was noisily engaged in my own thoughts, making up a silly song that went like this: Don’t plant your flax in a hayfield/’cuz a hayfield is full of grass/no matter what you do/there are roots through and through/so don’t plant your flax in a hayfield. My songs are notoriously dumb, but I was mightily entertained by myself, and not paying much attention to the woods around me. But then I saw another maple seed bundle with a greater ratio of yellow to pink, and stopped to pick it up. At that moment, the noise in my head stopped, too, and my focus shifted back to the woods. And suddenly I heard a wood thrush! You can listen to lots of different recordings of wood thrush songs at the Macaulay Library archives.

The wood thrush has the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. It evokes intense longing and utter contentment at the same time. Bliss. I love wood thrush season, and am always happy when they come back and sad when they leave.

My wood thrush backstory goes like this. Several years ago I started hearing this beautiful flute-like bird at the garden in the evenings. I began to listen for it while I was there, and look forward to hearing it. It felt affirming, reassuring, companionable…. but I could never see the bird that was singing because the song always came from deep in the woods. There are good resources for birdsong identification on line, but you have to know what a bird looks like to narrow down your search. So, the identity of my bird remained a mystery for several years. I began hearing it other places, too, including right by our apartment complex, especially early in the morning and around sunset.

One spring day maybe three years ago, I was sitting outside at the school where I worked, supervising kids playing outdoors. Amazingly, I heard my bird! So I peered over at the edge of the playground, next to the woods at the Larch Hill conservation area. And lo and behold, there was my bird singing away on a branch right at the edge of the woods. I moved closer and got a good look at it. It was a rich reddish-brown, about the size of a robin, with a white-and-black spotted breast and big feet. I found photos, descriptions, and recordings of its song on the Cornell University ornithology website, and at last identified my mystery bird.

A few months ago, as I was trying to think of a name for my new little weaving business, I decided to name it after the wood thrush.

There are a few reasons that wood thrushes appeal to me as a personal symbol of the ethics and aesthetics of fiber. I am very invested in locally grown and harvested fibers and dyes. I work hard to learn as much as possible about growing and using locally available fiber and dye plants, and to incorporate them into my work. I aspire to expand the range of fibers and dyes that are available to folks around here. But only certain materials can be obtained or produced in Massachusetts. One very useful fiber in particular, cotton, needs a much hotter, longer growing season than we can offer. But there are good, sustainable cotton projects going on further south, including an organic cotton industry in Texas, and naturally colored cottons in Peru. These projects need to be supported. The evils of conventionally raised cotton would take a whole other post to enumerate, but a good place to start, if you want to read about it, is Stephen Yafa’s Cotton.

Despite my fibershed ideal, I decided I would need to include far-away fibers in my fiber-diet. Here’s where the wood thrush comes in. Wood thrushes migrate to Central America in the winter, and only come up to New England in the summertime. So, that span of distance, from Massachusetts to Panama at least (if not as far as Peru), is linked together by my bird. Wood thrushes go where the good stuff is, while it’s in season, and that’s one way to think about fibers, too.

Here are some other wood thrush lessons I have learned. Their song is very beautiful, but it’s pretty quiet and they stick to the woods. To hear it, you have to spend time outdoors and be attentive to the world around you. Understanding where fiber raw materials come from, and how inseparable their growth and processing are from every other element of our environment, requires similar attention and observation. The wood thrush is not a flashy bird. In fact it’s sort of subtle and even conservative, like much of my weaving tends to be. Wood thrush populations are in decline due to a variety of factors including habitat loss and acid rain. Sustainable land management and reducing pollution are crucial to their survival, and to the survival of us all.

So, I was ecstatic to hear that the wood thrushes are back.