Winter Shrub ID: Red Elderberry

Photo of Red Elderberry flower buds

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is distinctive in the white season, with pairs of plump, green or purple flower buds and bark with prominently raised lenticels. Other field marks include heart or shield-shaped leaf scars with usually 5-7 bundle scars and persisting, finely branched fruit stalks with an overall dome shape.

The plant's red fruits, which are said to be edible for humans if prepared properly (I've not tried them, but see the comments section of Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Elderberry), are certainly eaten by various birds and mammals. In any case, the fruits do not persist into the white season. Red Elderberry is a clumping shrub or small tree capable of spreading by rhizome. To learn more about this native woody plant, visit GoBotany. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Winter Plant ID: Sulphur Cinquefoil

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil winter stalk

About a century ago, observing Sulphur Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) would have required a trip to Europe. But now this herbaceous perennial is established in fields and along roadsides throughout much of North America and as such can be studied year-round, if you know where to look.

While the plant's five-petaled, yellow flowers are of no assistance for white season identification, the numerous five-parted, hairy seed capsules, which are found at the tops of the many-branched, 2-3' tall stalks, are. These capsules account for another common name for this species: Rough-fruited Cinquefoil.

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil fruit capsule

The alternately arranged leaves are palmately divided (like those of Common Blackberry) into 5 or 7 leaflets (upper leaves may have only 3), and dried leaves often persist into the white season and can assist with identification efforts.

For help with keying out a mystery white season plant skeleton, I recommend A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter: Herbaceous plants of northeastern North America (1995) by Carol Levine (additional guides are listed on my Book Picks page under Winter Exploring). For more photos of Sulphur Cinquefoil, visit GoBotany.

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil dried leaf

17.07 | Nature Notes (Feb 12-18)

Photo of Red Maple flower buds
Red Maple flower buds | Biddeford, ME | 18 Feb 2017

Highlights of the Week

While observing squirrel and mouse tracks in the snow near the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, an unfamiliar sound caught my attention. The party responsible turned out to be a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (who'd been photographed by another birder the previous day). Sapsuckers are uncommon/rare in Maine during the white season.

A familiar smell led me to some fresh Striped Skunk tracks along the snow-covered trail at East Point Sanctuary in Biddeford Pool.

At Diamond Riverside Park in Saco, a Song Sparrow sang repeatedly from a thicket by the river. I'm fairly certain he was the first Song Sparrow I've heard sing in 2017.

Wild Edible of the Week

I enjoyed four cups of Eastern White Pine needle tea this week utilizing a few cut branches left by a tree trimming company. For each cup, I chopped up a pinky-thick bundle of needles, covered with boiling water, and let sit, covered, for 8 minutes.

Moon Challenge Report

My Tree Twig Moon continues. I've photographed and sketched 14 species.

Nature Challenge of the Week (for you, the reader)

Spend 10 minutes looking for active insects outside your home.


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Foraging Wild Teas: Eastern Hemlock

Photo of Eastern Hemlock needles

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) grows throughout New England and provides food, medicine, shelter, and much more for a host of insects, birds, and mammals. Identification features include: ~1/2" long, flat needles with white stripes below and short, bent stalks; ~3/4" long, dangling seed cones; and bumpy twigs (easily observed on dead branches). My favorite field mark requires a close look: miniature (often upside-down) needles line the tops of branches (see top photo).

The needles of Eastern Hemlock can be used to make a fragrant tea in much the same way as Balsam Fir needles. To avoid too strong a tea, I recommend starting with a couple of finger-length branchlets. Remember to bruise the needles (by rubbing or chopping) prior to covering with hot water to help release their inner constituents.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.