May Field Journal

When Bill and I purchased the West 40 unit in 2001 I found a small patch of dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne, under the shagbark hickory and oak tree canopy.  According to Wilhlem and Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region this is a rare species highly intolerant of disturbance and found only in a high quality natural communities. The sparsely-leaved flowering stalk is topped by a terminal spire containing 6-14 blue-violet spurred flowers.  In 2001 we began restoration of this unit with prescribed burns.  After three burns we thinned the overstocked woodland.  Since then we have continued annual prescribed burns.  Now this lovely plant has spread throughout the
West 40.

The 2020 morel season was disappointing.  I expected an excellent season because we had snow in both March and April.  (A bountiful morel harvest usually follows March and April snow events.)  But after harvesting thirty specimens between April 8-28 I found only one more on May 7.  It was an older specimen, probably one we missed in April. I had anticipated collecting at least one hundred specimens this year.  But the cold, dry weather that followed our April harvest put an end to morel fruiting. Our last morel foray was to the West Creek unit where we searched all the mayapple stands, dead elms and oak sprouts. We were skunked! All we found was a wild turkey nest with five eggs. 

Mushrooms aren’t the wild food we collect at Timberhill.  Stinging nettle shoots which are abundant  along in the Brush Creek bottom are a delicious cooked green.   Wearing gloves I harvest the young shoots when they are about one foot tall.  In the kitchen (still wearing gloves) I strip the leaves from the tough stalks and boil them for 8 minutes.  Cooking removes the sting. I prefer nettles sautéed in garlic and olive oil or tossed with butter.  Or you can cut up raw nettle leaves into soups and stews.  Boiling  the young shoots or leaves also makes a nourishing tea which contains vitamins A and C as well as iron and protein.  

April-May

At Timberhill ramps, also known as wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), are a rite of spring. One of the first wild plants to appear after the spring thaw this pungent member of the onion family is a delicious wild edible.   Ramps smell like garlic, cook like onion and taste like leeks. The plant is easily identified by its smooth green leaves and red lower stalks. All parts of this bulb forming perennial are edible.  We find it in the mixed hardwood woodland along Brush Creek.  

Digging ramps

Ramps can be cooked whole or the greens and stems separately.  Bill and I like them with scrambled eggs.  For this recipe I cook the ramp stems and a minced shallot in bacon grease until tender. After pushing the stems and shallot to the side  I cook the chopped greens until slightly wilted. To complete the recipe I add four beaten eggs, salt and pepper to the stems and shallot in the pan.  The eggs are cooked until softly set and somewhat moist and topped with chopped ramp greens.   Delicious!

Ramps (Wild Leek)

Here in Decatur County, Iowa the greatest weather changes occur in April.  This year it was more pronounced than usual.  The daytime high reached seventy-eight degrees on April 8.  Two days later 52” was the daytime high.   Cold weather continued into the next week culminating with a ten and one-half inches snowfall on April 14-17. The following week daytime high temperatures again reached 78.  After the snow melted spring ephemerals again covered the woodland floor.  By May 6 spring larkspur and hoary puccoon were coming into bloom.  I even found a frog orchid blooming in the West 40.

Frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

With its finely cut foliage lousewort is often mistaken for a fern.  In late April a dense cluster of small yellow snapdragon-like flowers bloom on top of the stem.  Lousewort is a root hemiparasite.  It is able to produce its own food through the use of solar energy but obtains water and nutrients from a host plant.  Roots of hemiparasites attach below ground  atop the roots of their host, robbing the host of water and nutrients.  A soil fungus acts as a bridge between the parasite and the host. Lousewort alters the plant community structure by robbing plants such as woodland  sunflower of nutrients and opening the site for more conservative plants. Once established, these plants spread like a fairy ring in an ever-widening circle.  Woodland sunflowers parasitized by lousewort become less vigorous.  As the sunflowers decline space is opened for more conservative forbs such as slender bush clover and blazing star.  

Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)

At Timberhill the two to four-week morel mushroom season usually begins in April. Although I have found morels as early as March 27 and as late as June 1 the season usually ends in early May.  It takes quite a bit of rainfall in order for morels to fruit.  Also, they have been particularly abundant in years that we had both March and April snowfall.  Since that was the case this year I expected a bountiful harvest.  On April 8 Bill and I found the first specimens in our West Creek and West 40 units after daytime high temperatures of 79” on April 7 and 78” on April 8.  That’s just what morels require to begin fruiting.  Temperatures dropped the next day and continued to fall throughout the next week.  Between April 14 and 17 ten and one-half inches snow fell.  However, morels began fruiting again after the snow melted. We collected thirty specimens on April 25, more than enough to prepare our favorite recipe: chicken with morels and cream

Chicken with morels and cream

During morel season it seems that I am either praying for rain or praying for rain to stop.  By April 22 I was praying for rain.  Thankfully we got 1.05 inches on April 24.  On April 25 we collected thirty specimens. Through the first week of May daytime highs dropped into the fifties – not warm enough for morel fruiting. Hot, dry weather always ends morel fruiting.  Now I’ll find out if they also shut down after cold, dry weather.  

Surprising Morels

Morel mushrooms have been intertwined with Bill’s and my life at Timberhill ever since we first saw them here in 1985.  Our realtor was showing us land along the Weldon River that the owner, Mike, was anxious to sell because the interest rates had become so high.  Bill, the realtor, Mike and I were crammed into the front seat of the Mike’s pickup.  After viewing his property along the Weldon River he drove us uphill to a gate that opened into a ridge top meadow. From there the trail took us past a pond in the sunlit wildflower meadow.  Surrounding the meadow branches of mature oak trees reached out over the top of native grasses.  I knew that this was the land that Bill and I had been looking for.  

Careful not to reveal my excitement, I nudged Bill and casually asked the realtor, “So who owns this property?”

“Oh, this is Doyle’s.  He lives across the road,” she replied.

We thanked Mike and the realtor, then drove immediately to the Butcher house.  There was no answer to our knock on the kitchen door.  We looked around the outbuildings for Doyle.  Then we heard a “Hello?” from across the road.  We turned around and saw Doyle and his wife walking toward us.  They carried a paper grocery sack overflowing with morels.  I’d never seen so many specimens.  Three months later we purchased 75 acres across the road from Doyle.

The next spring I asked Doyle to show me where to find the morels on the land we’d purchased from him.  “Oh, those weren’t on my land.  They were on Mike’s property.” That was our next land purchase – the 45 acres with morels from Mike.  

Site of first 2020 morel

West of our original land purchase was a 40 acre piece with high quality prairie remnants.  Although much of it was heavily overgrown with eastern red cedar I saw some very conservative plants such as low nut rush, Scleria verticillata, there. Water bubbled from freshwater natural springs.  Between the prairie remnants and springs we couldn’t resist and purchased another 40 acres in 2004 to bring our total to 200 acres.  That same year we implemented prescribed burns and we cleared all the trees except elms from this unit which we named West Creek.  It was under a dead elm in one of the West Creek prairie remnants that we found the first morel of 2020.

Young Maypples

We never know where the first morels will fruit since we have found morels in each of the Timberhill units.  Will they be under silver maple and elms trees east of the house along Brush Creek?  Or under the cottonwoods along the West 40 bottom trail?  Last year they were most abundant in the Hickory Grove and prairie border west of the house.   We have learned to begin looking seriously when the first asparagus spears sprout in the vegetable garden.  That was on April 8 this year and sure enough we found our first morel of the season sprouting from a clump of goldenrod leaves under a dead elm in West Creek the same day.  The next day we found four more. To my surprise all the specimens were fruiting from clumps of goldenrod leaves.  I’d never seen that before.  

First Morels

They will become more plentiful after the mayapple leaves are fully open.  That’s when we drop everything and devote each day to the two-to -three week morel harvest.

The Timberhill Year

April 6, 2020

In this difficult time Bill and I are also staying in place.  But we are fortunate to be living in the middle of a 200-acre private nature preserve.  Our place is surrounded by woodland and prairie bordered by a county road and two creeks.  We’re the only human residents.  Here’s what’s happening this week.  

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                                    Sarcosypha dudleyi,  Crimson Cup

Sarcosypha dudleyi,  Crimson Cup mushroom is now fruiting abundantly on downed basswood along Brush Creek east of the house. A harbinger of spring I have occasionally seen it fruiting on warm January days.  The deeply incurved cup flattens as the mushroom matures. The bright red inner surface is smooth while the white outer surface is composed of loose cottony material. The length of the short, wide stalk varies according to the depth at which the sticks are buried.  

In Iowa this species used to be recognized as S. coccinea.  But S. coccinea is found only in the Pacific Northwest whereas S. dudleyi is found in eastern North America. The two species can only be separated by their microscopic features. 

Crimson cup was used as medicinal plant by Oneida Indians.  They applied the dried and ground up fungus as a styptic to the navels of newborn children who were not healing properly after their umbilical cord was cut. Ground up fruit bodies were also used under soft-tanned deerskin bandages. 

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                                    Dumontinia tuberosa, Anemone cup

One expects to find Crimson Cup mushrooms early in the season but finding another cup fungus so early in the season is always gratifying.  Anemone cups, Dumontinia tuberosa,  are also fruiting in our open woodlands.  Widely distributed but not commonly collected in eastern North America from New York to North Dakota and south to Tennessee this fungus fruits in early spring, March through May.  Ada Hayden Herbarium at Iowa State University lists collections from Winneshiek, Marshall, Boone, Johnson, Iowa, Decatur and Story counties. D. tuberosa is the only member of the genus.  The underground portion consists of a long, slender stalk attached to a long, irregularly-shaped sclerotium, a compact mass of hardened mushroom tissue.  Above ground, the stalk expands into a pale umber-brown cup, 1-3 cm. wide. 

Historically Dumontinia tuberosa has been regarded as a parasite of Anemone “but a more complex relationship may exist between the two organisms.” (Elliott et al)I have dug up several specimens.  None were associated with the roots of another plant although Rue Anemone, Anemone thalictroides, is blooming nearby.

In Europe it is known to parasitize the rhizomes of Anemone nemerosa.  Since it is “parasitic on European species of anemone it has always been assumed that must also be the case in North America.  But it is uncertain whether it is associated with any American species of Anemone. Mycologist Fred Seaver collected hundreds of specimens and “in no case has the fungus been associated with the rhizomes of any host. While there might be a mycelial connection, none was apparent.” (Seaver)  It may also be that the American form of this species differs from the European.  

References:

Fred J. Seaver.  The North American Cup-fungi (Inoperculates). Lancaster: Lancaster Press, 1951:p. 76 Beug, Bessette & Bessetrte.  Ascomete Fungi of North America. University of Texas 

The Timberhill Year

Last year was bittersweet – a combination of tragedy and joy.  Our son Alex died in January of a subdural ganglian hematoma and on May, 2019 our granddaughter Octavia was born.  Not a day goes by that Bill and I don’t think of Alex.  We continue to miss him terribly.  But we take joy in our new grandaughter, an exceptionally bright and healthy baby.  

Painting by Alex

Since discontinuing my previous website I found that I miss writing.  So this is a new beginning. A documentation of the activities that fill our daily lives at Timberhill.

Timberhill is a 200 acre oak savanna restoration that my husband Bill and I  began restoring in 1993.  It is bordered on the north by Pony Farm Road and by Brush Creek on the east.   We began woodland stand improvement in 1993 and implemented prescribed fire in 1995. We are fortunate in that Timberhill is surrounded by woodland and not an isolated fragment.  Therefore, specialist species such as the regal fritillary have not been wholly extirpated.

Aerial map of Timberhill with Brush Creek to the east and Pony Farm Rd. on the north.
Aerial map of Timberhill

Oak savanna is a fire-dependent habitat and fire is essential to maintaining this habitat. Dangerous and destructive as it can be fire becomes a creative, cleansing force in savanna restoration. It controls unwanted woody plant competition such as ironwood and coralberry, stimulates oak regeneration and promotes native ground plant diversity.   By removing surface litter it opens sites for seed germination.  Without any seeding the Timberhill plant list has increased from 100 species in 1995 to almost 500 species.

In order to reduce the impact on overwintering insects we burn during the dormant season between November 15 (after oak leaf drop) and March 15.  At first we followed the periodic burn regimen recommended by experts by burning each site every three years.  However, the land northeast of the trail had so much little bluestem grass that it ignited every year.  After several burns I noted that this site had much higher plant diversity than sites burned periodically.  Here the monoculture of little bluestem had been transformed with abundant populations of highly conservative wildflowers such as Spring Larkspur. 

Spring Larkspur

Bill and I used to do the prescribed burns ourselves with the help of volunteers. But now we have an experienced burn contractor do it.  On March 7, 2020 he and his crew burned the seventy-acre East Savanna.  With wind gusts over 20 mph, only 23% humidity and temperatures predicted to rise above 60’ F. conditions for burning were not ideal. These conditions contributed to rapid fire spread and a red flag warning had been issued.  On the other hand, in this sharply dissected landscape we need extreme conditions to achieve a good burn.  

Night Fire on March 8

The next day the burn contractor returned to do clean-up burns in our West 40 unit which had not burned well last fall.   Although I knew this unit had good fire breaks I became nervous as the fire burned well into the night.  Unable to sleep, I stood at a window watching the red glow to the west.  Then, like magic it began to rain and the red glow was extinguished.