Cucumber Magnolia LeafApparently, I watch the ground when I walk.  So, I can walk right past them in summer.  In autumn, however, the sheer size of their leaves on the ground beneath my feet always makes me pause, then look up.  Cucumbertree.  Magnolia acuminata.


magnolia_acuminata range map

I’ve also seen it written as two words – Cucumber Tree, or hyphenated – Cucumber-tree.  Cucumbertree is in the magnolia family – Magnoliaceae.  Other common names include cucumber magnolia, yellow cucumbertree, yellow-flower magnolia, and mountain magnolia.  I associate magnolias with the south, and indeed, most specimens will be found south of me.  I live at the northern part of this tree’s range.  There are eight species of magnolia native to the US and this one is the hardiest.  It is the only native magnolia found in Canada – and there only in southern Ontario.

Cucumber Tree Fruits from greenmanradio dot comI can’t for the life of me figure out why the tree got a name with “cucumber” in it.  I guess somebody thought that the fresh fruits looked like little gherkins.  I don’t think they look anything like a cucumber.  (This is not my photo.  Click on it for the orginal website.)  I wish I had taken a closeup picture of the fresh fruits back in early September when I found them.  And I wish you could smell their wonderful fresh, spicy aroma!  And I wish you could see the bright, shiny, orange seeds.

While some birds and mammals eat the fruits and/or seeds of the cucumbertree, it is not considered an important wildlife food source.  (Who decides these things?  If somebody eats them, doesn’t that make them important?)  I took this picture of an older fruit yesterday:

Cucumber Magnolia FruitThere are a few of these magnificent trees scattered on the property at Audubon where I work.  The forestry website (listed below) describes where this tree can be found:  “In the Allegheny Plateau of northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, cucumbertree usually is associated with black cherry (Prunus serotina), sugar maple, yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), sweet birch (B. lenta), yellow-poplar, hemlock (Tsuga spp.), basswood (Tilia spp.), northern red oak Quercus rubra), and butternut (Juglans cinerea). Understory vegetation includes black cherry, white ash (Fraxinus americana), sugar maple, beech (Fagus grandifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), striped maple (A. pensylvanicum), witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium), and other viburnums.”  Sure enough, many of the trees listed here are in the forest sections where I find the Cucumbertree at Audubon.

They seem like aliens with enormous leaves and unusual fruits.  They are inconspicous in the summer, if like me you watch your feet while you walk.  But watch in late August or September for strange pink fruits on the forest floor… or later when the gigantic leaves fall and the fruits dry and explode.  Pick up a fruit – fresh or dried, and sniff it.  Look around for the tree.  Explore its bark.  It’s a great tree!  I love it!

Need to know more?  Check out these websites:

Witch Hunt

Witch-hazel FlowersToday I went on a witch hunt…  A hunt for Witch-hazel, that is…  the last flower to bloom in the fall.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a shrub or small tree that may reach a height of 20-30 feet.  It likes moist soils and often grows under the canopy of maples and oaks.  The strange, spider-like flower appears in late October – or even later sometimes.

Stan Tekiela claims in his field guide Trees of New York that the “Witch” part of the name comes from “a myth of witchcraft” that a forked branch of this tree can be used as a divining rod to find undeground water.  He claims that the “-hazel” part of the name comes from the fact that the leaves resemble those on a hazel shrub.  At Steven Foster’s botanical website, Foster agrees with the use of the branches for dowsing, but he says, “This has nothing to do with witches, but rather originates from the old English word for pliable branches, wych.”

Witch-Hazel FruitsI have also heard from naturalists that it is called witch-hazel because it blooms around Halloween time, or because the galls that often form on its leaves in summer resemble tiny witches’ hats.

I find it remarkable that the fruits take nearly a year to set and that you can often find blossoms on the tree at the same time you find the previous year’s mature fruits.  I also find it remarkable that the mature fruits will eventually dry and burst open expelling with considerable force two shiny black seeds up to 15 feet from the tree.

The list of medicinal uses in the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs is long.  You are probably familiar with Witch-hazel astringent, a clear liquid available in drugstores for skin toning, bruises, and other ailments.

My witch hunt was successful; I found trees in bloom… But Witch-hazel was NOT the only flower in bloom.  I was rather surprised at the long list of plants still producing flowers:

Butter and Eggs
Butter and Eggs

Common Blackberry
Common Blackberry

Deptford Pink
Deptford Pink

Field Milkwort
Field Milkwort

Queen Anne's Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace

Red Clover
Red Clover

(Also saw Musk Mallow… but didn’t photograph it…)

I guess summer just doesn’t want to let go!

No Pictures

Gray and windy morning.  Took the long way to work.  Rural roads.  Rolling hills.  Farm fields.  The colors seem more vibrant on gray mornings than when it’s sunny.  Why is that?  That winter grass the farmers plant is such a vibrant green… greener than summer.  The bleached corn stalks are a nameless color… but a color nonetheless.  The conifers seem to have challenged themselves to a contest to see how many shades of green they can invent.  And the deciduous trees… (In a comment on this post, My friend Deb described it thus:  “Autumn was in glorious and riotous abandon.”  Apt.)  Sugar maple red… poplar yellow…  dogwood purple… yellow-brown oak… 

The wind coaxed yellow leaves from maples or poplars and they did a dance for me… fluttering in the air, then skittering across the road.  This inspired a mixed flock of black birds… red-winged blackbirds, starlings, grackles, rusty blackbirds… to try a Leaf Blizzard Dance.  They kept their choreography in the air, however, and left out the skittering part.

I thought several times that I should take a picture.  Yet I never stopped the car, never snapped a single shot.  Lack of faith…  I simply did not believe that a picture could truly capture the beauty that seemed to seep into my bones on this glorious morning.

I felt blessed as I drove into the driveway at work… I could not stop smiling.

Last Hold-outs

GoldenrodThe goldenrod has gone to seed – for the most part.  The seeds on the ends of their poofy parachutes cling to my fleece when I walk past it, through it.  Today I found one lonely plant still in bloom…

I know the feeling… a sense of denial that the seasons are changing.  At this time of year, I often find myself inappropriately dressed.  Sunshine lulls me into thinking that it is still summertime-warm… so I leave the jacket behind and shiver in my shirt sleeves.

A couple of days ago, I found this flower, also in denial… or just confused perhaps as to what season it actually is:


I’m also in denial about just how tired I am…  But I can’t deny it any longer… so off to bed…


Aster in the SunDaily I am grateful for the place I live and the beauty that surrounds me.  I often have conversations with family and friends about how beautiful Western New York is… changing seasons, moderate temperatures, no strange poisonous snakes or scorpions, no hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes… Certainly we get our share of snow and an occasional tornado.  But for the most part, it is paradise to me.

I don’t need a disaster to remind me of the blessings in my life.  And yet, today, as the news is full of images of devastating fires along the west coast where I have friends and family, my blessings seem all the sweeter.  I am a very fortunate woman.

Closed GentianMy thoughts and prayers are with all on the West Coast who are dealing with the fires…  I know I can’t possibly relate to what you are experiencing.  The best I can do is send loving energy…  May you be well.

These pictures were taken over a month ago…  I kind of forgot I had them!  I hope you enjoy them…


Six Story Tree HouseMaddie and I visited Emily during “Family and Friends Weekend” at Wells College.  While Emily worked her shift in the dining hall on Saturday, I took Maddie down to Ithaca.  Before heading to the Moosewood for a delicious lunch, we scooted around the bottom of Cayuga Lake and up Route 89 to the Cayuga Nature Center for a quick visit, because Maddie had never seen Treetops.

Treetops is a six story tree house in the woods.  It was designed by high school students who then convinced the community to help them make their design a reality.  It is awesome to watch people discover it for the first time.  You hear them making conversation about whether or not they are on the right trail to find the treehouse… then suddenly… They are stopped in their tracks by the sheer magnitude of it.  After a short silence, you hear things like, “Oh my god!  This is AWESOME!”  If they are children (and sometimes even if they are grownups), you will also hear squeals of laughter and screams of delight as they begin to explore.

Inside the TreehouseThe outside of the 50-foot tower is covered with sticks giving the structure a Peter-Pan-in-Neverland feel.  But the inside is solid, safe construction.  There are all sorts of nooks and crannies and plenty of different ways to ascend and descend – from normal stairs to ladders and firemen’s poles.


Maddie at the Top of the TreehouseIn a couple of places, there are blue “nets” that you can walk across, if you dare!  The nature center has other fun nature-centerish kinds of things.  There’s a butterfly house, which I have never managed to visit during butterfly season, a collection of live animals, and a kids’ play and learn room.

All in all, it is a fun place to visit and if you are in the Ithaca NY area, you should make it a point to check it out.

Saw Whets!

Saw Whet OwlI’m really too tired to write anything coherent, but too cranked not to write something…  I arranged for a small group to head out to Allegany State Park to observe Tom LeBlanc’s bird banding station.  The first few net checks were a bust.  But just before we headed home we had success:  two Northern Saw Whet Owls.

It was pretty cool… and I got to “release” this one… which means, I placed her on this branch.  We never did see her fly away… She seemed to need time to re-group before taking off.