Thursday, November 17, 2011

POISON IVY - A misunderstood plant!

I am always amazed how so many people – even avid outdoors people do not really know what poison ivy looks like. Everyone knows of the name but so few actually can readily recognize PI (that’s poison ivy) in its many forms and permutations. Yes, indeed, poison ivy is quite variable in its appearance. It can be a streamlined vine gently creeping up a tree or a thick hairy beast of a vine that takes over the entire understory of a tree with vinelets reaching out 5 or more feet from the trunk. Poison ivy can be a large spreading ground bush that can be 3 feet tall or just little twigs of a plant that is no more than 3 inches tall yet carpets an entire field. The leaves of poison ivy can be tiny waxy red new leaves in early spring, shiny fresh green in late spring, a dull dusty green in late summer, or a bright cheery red, orange and yellow in the fall. The leaf shape can also be small and toothed (less than an inch) or large, rounded and subtley lobed at 5 inches or more in size.

So, the old adage of “leaves of 3, leave it be” definitely simplifies the identification of poison ivy a bit and IS indeed a great place to start, but there is so much to consider with PI. Let’s look at some pictures…

No…this isn’t it! Sorry – wrong Google image.

Here you go…

The vine…

The classic hairy vine...

Spring PI...

Summer poison ivy...

Fall PI...

Fall is by far the best time of year to really see how prevalent Poison Ivy is in our area. It currently is a stunningly beautiful red, orange and yellow foliage that is either running up along many a tree in the forest (check out the Merritt parkway this week and you will know what I mean – all that amazing color along the lower and upper trunks of trees is none other than our beloved Poison Ivy) or spread like a ruby red carpet across most fields under all of the browning goldenrod and Joe Pye weed.

How can something so beautiful be able to cause so much anguish?? I write that and then think of a rose with its thorns, a snow storm, a grizzly bear and even a loving marriage so scratch that question. This paradox riddles our world. What also riddles our world are ways of minimizing said anguish. Creation has a way of providing a solution when you are wanting it.

Back to poison ivy…there are plants that you can often find growing right next to or near poison ivy. In our area, Jewelweed or touch-me-not plant, found in the fields and moist forest edges, is one of the most common plants. It has a succulent type stalk that when crushed, becomes quite juicy. Here are a few pictures of this plant.

To use Jewelweed, you can crush the plant immediately after you come into contact with poison ivy and rub the area with the juicy crushed plant parts as well as use it as a salve for existing poison ivy rash. Or, as shown below, you can actually cook it into a concentrated concoction and use that as salve.

Of course, there are other over the counter products that can be used to wash off PI like Tecnu and things to help alleviate the itch and rash one gets from PI. I have always found that the natural remedies work just as well on mild to moderate cases of poison ivy. This guy however is pretty much in major trouble…OUCH!

In nature, everything has a purpose, value and interrelation with everything else. Question is, what value does poison ivy have? Well, to humans – us naked apes - it is indeed an issue and the value is not particularly high. PI can help reduce erosion for sandy soils and is used as such at times. Also, some experienced herbalists use PI medicinally (this I would not recommend to experiment with). However, to other wildlife, poison ivy indeed is important. As I mentioned earlier, poison ivy is really only a problem for us naked apes. Deer and other animals will eat the leaves (though not in huge amounts). Many birds, mice and squirrels will eat the berries and seeds through late fall and into winter. It is an important food source helping these animals survive the long winter months. Goats in particular can consume large quantities of it so if you’ve got PI – get a goat!

And sometimes, even though we (us naked apes) don't have a clear idea on some purpose for something in nature (i.e. those nuisance plants like poison ivy or insects like mosquitoes), it doesn't mean that they don't have an important role.

In the end, poison ivy has its place in our natural world, like it or not. What we can do to avoid the unpleasantness of contracting a PI rash is arm yourself with the knowledge of what it looks like in all seasons. As an educator and naturalist, I also see poison ivy as a great reason to look up from the ground (most of us walk looking down at our feet even when out in nature) and enjoy ALL the splendor of the natural world. In time, you can train yourself to spot poison ivy from quite far away. I am now unable to NOT find poison ivy whenever it is around, always having an eye open for those leaves of three! Now go out there and enjoy some nature!

Remember, you can always get a goat (even rent one) to help out too! ;)

Happy trails...

Keith Marshall
Director of Education for the New Canaan Nature Center

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Know Before You Go: Ticks

I’ve come to realize in my 20-plus years working as a naturalist and environmental educator that the greatest challenge for getting kids outside is overcoming fear.  I’m not really talking about the fears kids have (since they can be pretty fearless) but about the adults: the parents, teachers and others who carry a fear of nature and pass it on to their children.  Replacing fear with awareness and knowledge is the key to having a blast AND being safe out in nature.

So what’s out there that causes some of this fear, and how do we become aware and knowledgeable about it?  In this part of the country we’ve got a few “hazards” that warrant our attention but definitely shouldn’t prevent us from spending quality time in nature playing as children are meant to play.

Ticks, Poison Ivy & Bees... Oh My!

Yes, in this beautiful part of our country we’ve got a few things that can put a real damper on any nature adventure IF we do not educate ourselves about them.  In this three-part series we’ll explore the “Know Before You Go” basic facts for each so we’re ready and excited about heading out into our backyards this summer. 

We’ll start with the big one first – TICKS.  Yes, they are creepy and crawling and can give us humans some nasty diseases if ignored.  Is it worth keeping our kids and selves out of the woods to avoid this hazard?  Most definitely NOT.  With some simple steps and basic education, it is completely feasible and fairly easy to avoid any tick-borne diseases while allowing our kids those nature adventures we remember from our youth. 

So, without further adieu, here’s what you need to.. 

Know Before You Go: Ticks

What are ticks?
Ticks, like spiders and mites, are arachnids and have eight legs.  They’re commonly found in moist or humid environments near wooded or grassy areas.  A favorite food source for chickens, turkeys, and other ground birds, ticks represent an important link in the food chain as they take nourishment from larger host animals high on the chain and transfer it down to lesser organisms.  
There are several kinds of ticks in our area but the most common are the deer tick, lone star and dog tick.  The deer tick (aka the black legged tick) is the one that can transmit Lyme disease.  However, each one has the potential to transmit some kind of disease like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  The picture below shows identifying features of the three ticks mentioned above.  Deer ticks have a red abdomen while dog ticks are a mottled brown. 

Prepare Yourself
There are several things you can do to decrease your chances of picking up a tick.  For starters: 
  • Wear light colored clothing so ticks can be easily seen. 
  • Know where ticks are found and use caution when walking through these areas. 
  • Apply a bug repellant.  Many are designed specifically to repel ticks. 
  • Perform a tick check.
Remember:  Contrary to popular belief, ticks can’t jump onto you. They can hitch a ride as you walk past them dangling off a twig or in the grass, but they won’t jump out to get you.  Once they’ve found their way onto your body, they will crawl slowly to a dark and out-of-the-way spot and do their thing.  Ticks then attach themselves to your skin, feed on your blood until full and then drop off of you and go have baby ticks.   

Performing a Tick Check 
A simple tick check when you leave a field, again before bed-time or while bathing to check “out of the way” places lets you catch the tick early and reduces the risk of any disease transmission.  

Use your senses! 
       1.  Feel it crawling on you;
       2.  See it (a raised mole type spot that wasn’t there yesterday); 
       3.  Feel it by touching it (if it is attached, it will feel like a skin tag that wasn’t there yesterday).

Make sure to check the following areas thoroughly: 
       - Armpits  
       - In and around ears
       - Belly Button 
       - Back of knees 
       - In your hair 
       - Between your legs 
       - Around your waist

Feeling it with your fingers is why bath time is the best way of catching these buggers.  You are looking at and feeling areas that one typically doesn’t touch during the day.

How to Remove a Tick 
If you find a tick on you – again, don’t freak out!  Using tweezers (don’t try any other method like a lighted match, Vaseline, etc.) carefully grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently but firmly pull, exerting a steady pulling pressure until the tick releases.  It’s alright it you don’t remove all of the tick (it’s not uncommon for the mouth parts to remain in the skin) - just disinfect and leave it.  Your body will naturally push it out.  

Removing a tick within 8 to 24 hours of it landing on you can significantly reduce the chance of catching Lyme or any other tick borne disease.  As a precaution, however, always put the tick in a zip lock and take it to your Health Department for a free test to determine if the tick has Lyme or other diseases.  

Now, if you happen to miss that window of time and find a tick attached that has been there for a full day or more – don’t freak out.  Tick-borne diseases are fairly easily cured by a round of antibiotics that doctors readily prescribe even as a precautionary measure.  Again, when you remove a tick, SAVE IT and get it to your Health Department for testing.  This is the best way to find out if you need a round of antibiotics. 

About Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Diseases 
If you think you might have missed catching a tick at all (some of the nymph stages can be quite small) and could have gotten Lyme, here are some things to know:

The Lyme test is not fool-proof (it can give false negatives AND positives) as it typically takes 6-8 weeks for the disease to show up in your bloodstream.  If you live in tick country and do recreate outside, the best thing to do is test for Lyme every year as a part of your annual check-up.  This way, your doctor will have comparative values and can better determine if a tick-borne disease is in your system.  Besides the test, you can look for the tell-tale sign of a bulls-eye or target-like mark on your body (shows up in about ¾ of cases), flu-like symptoms, general malaise (and not because you are up all night with an infant), aching in the joints, etc.  Of course, you could just have the flu, but it never hurts to be certain.

I have had well over 25 ticks on my body in my life (and for some nature enthusiasts that is a really small number) and actually have NEVER gotten any tick born disease.  I believe that’s largely because I’ve caught the ticks early.  But what I have had are some fantastic adventures in nature - as a kid myself and as an adult teaching kids in outdoor settings.  I’ve also had several friends who’ve gotten Lyme or some other tick borne disease and have kicked it completely with the help of antibiotics.  Tick borne diseases can be serious if not handled right away.  That’s why practicing good tick preparedness when out in tick country is so important.  You can stay safe and still have fun outside.   Don’t let a fear of ticks stop you or your kids from creating some great outdoor memories of your own.  Just arm yourself with awareness, knowledge and good simple practices to keep you and your whole family happy and healthy.

Keith Marshall
Director of Education 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spring's long car ride

Spring this year has made me feel like a child on a long car ride. When the sap started flowing back in March, I thought that I had everything I needed to make it through to summer. With lots of syrup to sweeten my meals and seed catalogues to keep me dreaming of warmer weather, it seemed like I could nestle in to the remnants of winter like the back seat of my parent’s 1983 Oldsmobile and enjoy the ride.
Then it snowed again. And again. With a whole lot of freezing rain when it wasn’t snowing. Suddenly, my socks didn’t seem to warm and cuddly. My maple-candied almonds and homemade cider tasted dull and bitter as I dreamed of fresh corn on the cob. The sap continued to flow and the nature center staff kept trudging through the snow and mud to make syrup. Even as we all smiled about how much syrup we were able to make, we had one eye on the sky, waiting for the tanagers and then the warblers to join the red-winged blackbirds.
Like my dad on a trip to Florida at the North Carolina border, Nature kept saying that we are almost there. But, just like when I was 7 with no more books to read and gorged on snacks and juice boxes, all I could think about was flip flops on the beach. At the beginning of April, I thought for sure that I was going to lose my mind if I couldn’t pack up my wool sweaters and break out the sundresses. When the forest would usually be filled with a cacophony of frogs & toads, singing to find their mates at the vernal pool, there was silence. As chilly temperatures persisted, spring just seemed out of reach.
Then, all of a sudden, the Welcome to Spring sign was on the horizon. The magnolia tree outside the Visitor’s Center budded, bloomed and filled the air with perfume. I put on my sandals and rolled up my jeans. I felt the sweet relief of a my childhood, when I got to pack up all my road trip goodies and slip my shoes back on. With my window open at night, I could hear all the amphibians waking up and singing. Finally, spring!
Now that spring is here, I have to remind myself that I’m not going to make nature move any faster with my impatience. I want to take time to smell the flowers, watch the tadpoles and have my feet tickled by the ferns before I start getting antsy for summer. Hopefully, I won’t be writing a blog in June about how approaching summer is like my trip to the DMV.

Ali Beatty
Environmental Educator/Program Coordinator

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Winter Musings of a Naturalist: 5 Tips to get the most of Winter

It is officially winter now and what does that mean?  For many, we relate to this coldest of seasons as a long-time opponent.  It is someone to brace ourselves against with scarves and hunched shoulders while we wait for the sun to begin its northerly ascent.  Cold temperatures, snow and ice, frozen ground, leafless trees and a seemingly lifeless world is what we see as we peer through glass that keeps that cold from reaching our bones.

However, I would like to offer some helpful tips for anyone willing to brave this winter season.  These tips will help you and yours make the very most out of this winter season not as a distant spectator but as an active participant in what I have experienced to be the most exciting and invigorating season of all.  The cold, snow, ice, frozen ground and leafless trees are actually the backdrop to a world of miraculous life that is there for anyone to see IF they take the time to look close enough.

Here are the top 5 tips for actually enjoying the coldest season the month with your family.

Tip 1:  DRESS WARM! 
Wear nice warm layers with a windbreak outer layer, warm hat, socks and gloves (down/synthetic puffy coats are the best outer layer when the wind is piercing cold and good warm boots will make your outdoor winter adventure comfortable.)

Tip 2: GET INTO NATURE!  There is nothing more beautiful and exciting than getting out to a natural space (like the New Canaan Nature Center) on a winter day and exploring all the winter life from chattering squirrels to chipping chickadees.

Tip 3: LOOK FOR LIFE!  One of the best ways to get a glimpse into all the animal and bird life happening during the winter is to go tracking!  Kids big and small, once they start tracking in snow will be entertained for hours in the coldest of temps!  Every mark in snow is a track whether it is from a rolling oak leaf or a vole burrowing a snow tunnel so get down on your hands and knees and explore the subtle signs left that early morning.

  In this region of Connecticut, we have well over 50 different types of trees.  Even though the leaves are gone, the buds, bark and shape of trees are unique and challenging to distinguish.  Or if you want to be spellbound, what about the using your black windbreak jacket or glove and catch a snowflake to examine its crystal shape – no one snowflake is the same.

Tip 5: BUILD A FORT!  When that wind gets blowing and leaves or snow are swirling around, there is nothing more exciting and cozy than to build a leaf or snow fort.  Build up the walls, pile leaves or pack the snow down and hunker down and feel how warm and cozy it feels (32 degrees is much warmer than 10 degrees with wind chill!)

Ultimately, get outside to a nature center like ours with your family, dress warm and PLAY this winter season!  You will get some much needed exercise, Vitamin D and fun after being cooped up inside.  

All the best to you and yours this season!

Keith Marshall
Director of Education
New Canaan Nature Center

Monday, January 10, 2011

Keep Those Holiday Plants Going!

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent the last week packing away your Christmas decorations with a mix of fond reminiscence and conscious procrastination. While the Christmas tree has been gone since last weekend, I still have boxes in my dining room filled with ornaments, wrapping paper, and other miscellaneous trinkets that decorate my apartment for one month out of twelve. The holidays are always here faster than we expect and then over before we really know what hit us.

While all of our annual decorations have their rightful place in a storage box awaiting their debut next December, what do we do about the poinsettias, paperwhites (or Narcissus), and Christmas cacti we’ve bought or received as gifts? It feels wrong to throw them away. I even get a little guilty twinge, like the man in the red suit is watching and marking me off on his “naughty” list… But the landfill doesn’t have to be their final resting place. I’ve searched the internet and found ways to keep holiday plants alive and well all year until they can bloom again next December.


Perhaps the most popular holiday plant, poinsettias come in a wide variety of colors. The festive bright colorful “flowers” are actually the topmost leaves of the plant. Poinsettias are well adapted to indoor temperatures so you can keep them going just about as long as you care to have them around (my Mom kept one giant plant going for almost two years!). Upkeep is fairly simple but gets a little tricky as the plants needs to be moved in and out of the dark starting in October to create the dramatic colors we all know so well. See How to Keep a Poinsettia Going After Christmas

Paperwhite Narcissus

These fragrant Christmas flowers can easily be forced to bloom in the dead of winter in as little as four short weeks. If your plant is growing in potted soil*, it’s possible to save your bulbs for use next season. Checking the blogosphere, I discovered that many people have had success regrowing their bulbs by planting them in a garden or repotting them during the fall then moving them to a cool, dark place until forcing them to sprout once again. The key is to let the bulbs replenish their store of energy (gathered through the soil), which allows them to blossom once again. Some tips on how to best do this can be found on GardenWeb and eHow.

*Paperwhites can also grow in shallow trays with gravel and water, but this depletes the bulbs store of energy and greatly reduces their chance to re-bloom.

Christmas Cactus

I grew up in the western Colorado desert and even I don’t normally associate cacti with Christmas (except for one unfortunate family outing to cut down the Christmas tree during which I sat down on an unsuspecting pile of snow only to land on a hidden prickly plant), but these holiday favorites are loved for their blossoms – thought to naturally flower at Christmas – that resemble holiday ornaments dangling from the tips of their leaves. With a little TLC, a Christmas cactus can be kept as a houseplant for years and forced into bloom for many Christmases to come. According to gardener Helen Stewart on Suite101, “place your Christmas cactus [each fall] in a location in which the plant will be in total darkness for 12 hours each night (a closet with shut door) for six weeks or until flower buds appear. Once flower buds appear, the Christmas cactus can be returned to its usual location to bloom.”

Christmas Tree

And what about that Christmas tree I mentioned earlier? While mine was fated to end up in the hands of my garbage man, yours can have a more honorable “retirement.” Here are a few other options for discarding or treecycling your Tannenbaum:
  1. Check with you local city sanitation department or transfer station to see if any recycling opportunities are available. New York City holds an annual MulchFest (held this year on January 8 & 9, 2011) in which residents can bring their tree to any local park to have it reduced to mulch to nourish plants and flowers in that same park. Read more here.
  2. Have a garden? Your tree might just be the fertilizer you need. Bring a soil sample to the Nature Center for testing (free for members). If you have a basic garden bed the acidity of the pine needles can help neutralize the soil making it better for plants to grow.
  3. Create a fish habitat. Tossing your tree into your natural backyard pond could be a good way to make a new abode for the fish who call it home. The needles eventually drop, creating lots of nooks and crannies that provide protection for eggs and from predatory birds. Just make sure your pond if deep enough to cover the tree and attach anchors (such as cinderblocks) to each end of the tree so it sinks to the bottom.
Posted by Chrissy Elmblad, Development Associate

Friday, December 17, 2010

I'm not a winter hater!

That’s it. I’ve had it with these freezing cold temperatures.

Now, ok, I’m aware that I am a wimp. For all of you well-adapted Northeasterners, this weather is perfect for beach picnics and sand volleyball. However, I maintain that even though I appear to be perfectly human, I’m either part reptilian or I am the only ectothermic human, ever. Either of these hypotheses perfectly explains my inability to keep myself warm in the winter.

If only my body could sustain itself with a heartbeat of 20 beats/ minute; it would be fantastic! I could eat massive quantities of delicious fatty foods for months and get hugely fat (that would be awesome). And then, I could sleep through the freezing cold months and wake up super skinny. Not only is this the best diet plan ever, it’s the perfect way for me to hibernate through the cold.

Please don’t get the idea that I’m a winter hater. That’s not the case, cross my heart. There are so many wonderful things about winter (most of them are snow related) and I am admittedly overwhelmed with childlike joy at the sight of snowflakes falling. The sound that shoes make crunching through accumulated snow is exciting and the way that I can see through the bare forest gives me a whole new perspective of the landscape. Recently, tracking animals has started interesting me. After a light dusting of snow, it’s a game to deduce which animal left the track, where it was going and what it was doing. I’m like Sherlock Holmes! (It’s not weird, it’s cool) In fact, when there’s snow, I almost forget about the cold entirely.

All I really need to do to help myself stay warm (and therefore more fully appreciate the beauty of winter) is recreate my circulatory system to mimic that of penguins and certain other waterfowl. They have a brilliant counter current heat exchange blood flow in their lower extremities. So the arteries and veins are located next to each other so when the warm blood flows from the heart, the heat is transferred to the colder blood flowing in the veins, helping to warm the blood entering the core of the body, thus preventing a drop in body temperature due to horrible horrible stupid freezing cold.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fall's Fading Fast

Every morning, rain or shine, I go walking. It’s a good time to reflect and have the glory of a rising sun start my day. One morning, as I strolled across the empty parking lot on my way to the trails, a large flock of Canada geese flew over head. Their unique honking interrupted the usual morning chirping and I got goose bumps (I swear I didn’t intend for that to be punny). The sound caused me to stop and I realized that I was alone with the season.
Standing in the middle of the parking lot, it smelled like fall; the smell of cold and of decomposing leaves. The bitter taste of black tea still in my mouth and my breath was visible in the air. My ears tingled with the chilly breeze. Those moments are my favorite moments of the whole year. The light was even different. The sun was coming up through the changing leaves and everything appeared yellow. This light was unbelievable and gorgeous. It’s unclear to me if it was the sound of the geese, the cold temperature, the rich smell and the changing light, but I felt like this morning was all mine. It belonged to me.
I don’t know why a sense of ownership was adopted. I certainly can’t be the only one who claims possession when no one else is around to dispute the claim. (For example, what about the change in the couch? Certainly no one stands up and says “who lost 18 cents in the couch?” before putting it in your pocket.) And what I realized is that if I actually owned something in nature then I have a responsibility to it. (Just like I have the responsibility to put the 18 cents toward my next pack of gum) The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it’s time for everyone to take responsibility of their moments and connections in nature. So get outside, and take pleasure in these last, lovely days of fall. It’s too short of a season. Listen to folk music. Make hot cocoa. Zip up your jackets. Enjoy!