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.

Just a Little Afternoon Walk

Sure was a pretty day.  Lucky for me I work at a Nature Center and can make up excuses to go outside.  Like today… had to see if the gas company really put seed on the section of property they had to brushhog for a recent project… and well, while we’re out here, might as well go clean out the bluebird boxes (and evict any mice that may have taken up residence).

I wish I could show you a picture of the most awesome harrier ever.  No!  Wish I could show you video.  It was amazing the way he turned on the wind so that the light came through his tail feathers…  Gorgeous.  No pictures of him, though.  Here’s what I did get:

There were billions of these meadowhawks out today… many in tandem, some in wheels, some ovipositing – in tandem.

Lots of these grasshoppers, too… such pretty red legs… which you can’t see very well here…

Wood Sorrel
I experimented with exposure on this Wood Sorrel blossom in bright afternoon sun.  I liked the way this dark one turned out best.

What a cute little bunny… He let us get fairly close before dashing into the shrubs.

(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part III

Picking ApplesMy muscles ache a bit today, but it is a satisfying ache.  The result was a taste so fresh and crisp – it was certainly worth the effort and the resulting stiff muscles.

Farmer Dave had picked all the apples he wanted for winter.  He told my friend Terry that he could have the rest for cider.  I agreed to help.  I had never made apple cider before and was willing to learn.  We started by picking apples.  I love the clawed basket tool that allowed us to reach the tops of the trees without a ladder.  Who comes up with these clever ideas?

These will be cider soon...We had no idea how many to pick… how many apples does it take to make a gallon of cider?  We wanted to make apple sauce, too, so just keep picking… We didn’t fill the wagon. What would you say this looks like? A couple of bushels maybe?  Perhaps a little more?

We hauled the equipment out of the barn and got it cleaned up and ready to go.  Already, the bees were buzzing around the wagon.  Dave had warned us that they would really start coming when we began pulverizing the apples.


Making mashI’m not sure what this piece of equipment is called.  One of the websites I found referred to it as a “scratcher” and the name was in quotes.  Maybe there is a more official name?  You put apples in the hopper on top and turn the crank.  The apples are crushed and drop into a 5 gallon bucket underneath.


Pressing the mashThe crushed apple mash is transferred to a burlap sack and placed in this bucket-shaped frame.  A block of wood on top of the burlap sack allows us to press the sack, squeezing the juice out of the mash.  This juice is filtered through several layers of cheesecloth and then bottled.  (I forgot to take a picture of our filtering system… but basically , it was a stainless steel colander of sorts that we lined with cheesecloth and placed over a stainless steel milking bucket.)

I think we figured it took about a 5 gallon bucket of mash to make 1 gallon of cider.  We never did figure out how many apples it took to make the 5 gallon bucket of mash, though.  Maybe we’ll figure that out next year?

By the way… Dave wasn’t joking about the bees.  They were everywhere, making me just a little nervous.  They seemed to have no interest in us, though… just wanted the apples and juice!

We had glasses of fresh cider with lunch.  Terry will probably drink the rest of his cider over the next few days.  I put the rest of mine in the freezer to pull out for Thanksgiving dinner.  We saved out some of the rounder apples to make applesauce.  I’ll serve that on Thanksgiving, too.

Pam (Nature Woman) remembers making cider with her family as a kid.  Read about it here.  What do you think, Pam?  Is this pretty much the same process you remember?  Do you have any tips for us for next year?

Many thanks to Dave who gave us the apples and taught us how to make cider.  You can visit Dave and stay at his Country House Bed and BreakfastClick here to learn more.

(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part II

Hickory Woods in SpringWhen I was a kid, I remember racing the squirrels for hickory nuts, butternuts, and beechnuts – all of which grew in our neighborhood.  We learned, as the squirrels know, to distinguish the tasty, meaty nuts from the “duds” by cracking a lot of both.  Eventually, we could tell by the look of a nut if it would provide us with a tasty treat and we tossed aside the duds before wasting our energy cracking them.

Shagbark Hicorky in WinterThe beechnuts were easy to open – especially if one the girls had let her fingernails grow out a bit.  The shells of beechnuts are soft enough; you can slip your thumbnail behind one of the triangular sides and peel it back to extract the nut.

The hickories and butternuts required tools:  one flat rock to place the nut on and another rounder rock that we could use to smash the nuts open.  There was some learning involved there, too.  If you smashed the nut too hard, your nut meats would be crushed and it would require patience to separate them from the shells.  If you didn’t smash it enough, you might end up with perfect nut meats – but they would be stuck in the shell whose contours match the nut making extraction difficult, indeed sometimes impossible.

While walking the dog in the hickory woods behind Bergman Park one fine fall day, I was struck by the sound of falling hickory nuts.  It was raining nuts.  I decided right then that I would return with a bucket or bag so I could gather some.  I felt a little silly passing the other dog-walkers with my blue bucket, but no one asked what I intended to put in there.  It took almost no time at all to fill the bucket to the top.

Shagbark Hickory Nuts in the FallI spread the nuts out on trays in the sun to dry the thick green husks so that they would pop off easily.  I’m still going through the nuts, cracking them one by one with channel locks!  The sad truth is, I’ve forgotten since childhood how to tell the good ones from the duds… so I’m having to re-learn that!  Another sad truth is that from that 3 or 4 gallon bucket of nuts, I will probably only have enough meats to make one batch of cookies.  I don’t care though… It’s still fun to say – “Yeah!  I gathered the nuts for these cookies…”