Walking in the woods in Delaware, my daughter found these …
… and was curious. What are they?
On the left is a seed cone of the tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera (you might also know it as tulip poplar). Tuliptree cones are made up of a single point — like a knight’s lance — surrounded by many samaras (seed structures perhaps typified by maple “helicopters,” and a great word to know). These seed cones enchanted me as a child, but I seldom find them here in Rhode Island. It turns out that Liriodendrons just don’t live around here much — zoom in to the county level for Massachusetts and Rhode Island on this NRCS map, and you’ll see that they don’t seem to exist in southeastern New England’s coastal areas. This is too bad. With tuliptrees scarce in Rhode Island, here’s what we’re missing out on according to Donald Culross Peattie in A Natural History of North American Trees:
The flowers, which give it this name, are yellow or orange at base, a light greenish shade above. Almost as brilliant are the leaves when they first appear, a glossy, sunshiny pale green; they deepen in tint in summer and, in autumn, turn a rich, rejoicing gold. Even in winter the tree is still not unadorned, for the axis of the cone remains, candelabrum fashion, erect on the bare twig when all the seeds have fallen. No wonder that in the gardens of France and England this is one of the most popular of all American species.
On the right is the shell of a nut from an American beech tree, Fagus grandifolia. These shells were my bane when I was a child; a large beech tree would deposit these small, spiky monstrosities all over our backyard, significantly hampering barefoot play. Now, though, I miss them — as it turns out, “Fagus grandifolia (American Beech) is uncommon along the coast of southern New England.” Rhode Island’s climate and ecology so often feel like the Delaware woods where I grew up that these little differences always surprise me.
On our drive back from Delaware to Rhode Island at the end of the holiday weekend, we stopped by Connecticut’s New Canaan Nature Center. My daughter, while playing in the children’s garden, found lots of these …
… and was intrigued. Talk about monstrosities!
The spiny husk was unfamiliar to me, but when I opened it up I recognized the chestnut inside. It turns out that the American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, was all but wiped out by blight in the early 20th century and has only gradually been returning to the east coast of the United States (with some help).
Interestingly, beeches and chestnuts are both members of the family Fagacea, which comes from the Greek for “to eat.” Yes, friends, the contents of those spiky husks are very edible (no surprise with the chestnut, but perhaps for the beech). Let’s check in again with Lee Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, where American beech and chestnut appear one after another on the same page:
The thin-shelled nuts [of American beech] have sweet kernels that are delicious roasted and eaten whole, or ground into flour. … Gather them after they drop from the trees during the first frosty nights in October.
Because of Chestnut blight, this species [American chestnut] now occurs mostly as sprouts from old stumps. … Nowadays few trees reach sufficient maturity to produce more than a few nuts. If you do find enough to make collection worthwhile, gather the nuts after the first frost splits the husks open. Once the husks and bitter pith are removed, the kernels are sweet and delicious.
Looks like we missed out on some good eating.
Finally, New Canaan Nature Center also features a “cattail marsh.” In light of my previous hand-wringing over phragmites potentially poisoning cattails, it was nice to see some cattails thriving.
Peattie’s description of the American beech in A Natural History of North American Trees is too poetic not to include here, even though the nuts aren’t mentioned:
In very early spring, an unearthly pale pure green clothes the tree in a misty nimbus of light. As the foliage matures, it becomes a translucent blue green through which the light, but not the heat, of the summer day comes clearly. And in autumn these delicate leaves, borne chiefly on the ends of the branchlets and largely in one plane, in broad flat sprays, turn a soft clear yellow. Then is the Beech translated. As the sun of Indian summer bathes the great tree, it stands in a profound autumnal calm, enveloped in a golden light that hallows all about it.