On The Road Again, Halloween Style

Shadows mutter, mist replies; darkness purrs as midnight sighs.

~ Rusty Fischer

The pause in posts was necessitated by another truck road trip and much less cell phone service than usual. This time, carrying our ancient (and heavy) black canoe (who has a black canoe anyway?) atop the truck to paddle some rivers in far-away lands (Missouri and Arkansas). But more on that part of the adventure in future posts. Today, due to the nature of the holiday upon us, I thought I’d focus of the things we saw at the start of the trip when we wee exploring our mountains and stalling for time so a storm system in the Midwest could move on. I hadn’t really realized how spooky it all was until I started looking at the photos this morning with so many thoughts of Halloween now surrounding us.

So, here are a few of the mysterious things encountered as we made our way across our mountains at the start of our latest adventure. It started innocently enough, a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, headed toward a campsite at the Pisgah campground near the Pisgah Inn. Leaf color was just beginning to change, so the crowds were not yet suffocating and the views were fantastic.

Scene along Blue Ridge Parkway (click photos to enlarge)

But, now, with Halloween upon us, I began to view these images in a different, darker light. Am I just imagining things, or were those first few days pretty creepy? Look at the photos, and tell me what you think…

A morning mist creeps through the valley below. We drove down into one such bank of clouds and the bright, sunny day suddenly turned dark…

On a hike to a fire tower near the Pisgah campground, we encountered a number of interesting (and looking back now,) potentially eerie plants. Here are just a few…

The oddly-shaped flowers and last year’s seed pods of American Witch-hazel, one of our latest blooming plants.

This late-blooming small tree is an odd plant indeed. Extracts from the leaves, bark, and twigs provide the aromatic salve called witch hazel, used as an astringent and an anti-inflammatory to soothe cuts and burns. In addition to its unusual name, another spooky trait is that forked branches of this tree have been favored for use as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settles observed Native Americans using American Witch-hazel to find underground sources of water (or other objects if interest such as minerals, buried treasure, graves, etc.). According to folklore, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward. The bottom or butt end of the “Y” is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. The dowser then walks back and forth over the area to be tested. When she/he passes over a source of water, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward. I have tried this and actually felt the rod move in my hands…creepy!

The globular fruiting cluster of Carrion Flower, an herbaceous greenbrier. Flowers give off an odor similar to carrion (the decaying flesh of dead animals) and attract a ghoulish group of pollinators such as beetles and flies that usually show up at corpses for their meals.
The starburst shape of this seed group attracted my attention. It belongs to Filmy Angelica, a poisonous herb found at high elevations. Even the pollinators run the risk of becoming intoxicated by some unknown compound in the flowers’ nectar. Bees beware!

We headed to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on our next day for a hike in the majestic forest of giant trees. It is one of my favorite tracts of woodland, but on this trip, there were a few strange encounters with otherworldly beings. See if you agree.

We hiked the loop trail through the famous Poplar Grove at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This tract is home to a virgin stand of trees, most notably the tremendous Tulip Poplars, some of which are estimated at over 400 years in age and diameters between 5 and 6 feet. As grand as they are, in looking back, I now see an unsettling resemblance to the Ents in Lord of the Rings. You see it too, don’t you?
At first glance, these tiny fungi look like diminutive fingers poking up from a decaying log. They may actually be a type of fungus associated with green algal mats on logs named Muticlavula mucida.

The most bizarre “creature” we encountered on our hike was a large fungus on a dead tree trunk. I glanced off the trail and saw it staring back at me with a strange misshapen face – mushroom man!

Mushroom man’s face measured roughly 12 inches tall and 8 inches wide.
Side view highlighting the sweaty nature of mushroom man’s skin.

I have tried to find out what species this is, but so far without any luck. If anyone knows the identity of this creepy creature, please let me know. It certainly was one of the most Halloween-like encounters we had on our trip…well, other than the full moon night of Sasquatch sounds (more on that in a future post). Have a safe, sweets-filled, and suitably scary Halloween!

Mason Farm Meander

No one who loves the woods stays on the path.

~Millie Florence

Last Sunday, we wandered over to one of my favorite local spots, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Given to the University in 1894 by Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason, the 367-acre tract consists of a number of Piedmont habitats from bottomland hardwood forests to old fields. This variety makes for a great diversity of plants and animals. We started off on the 2+ mile loop trail and then cut into the woods to look for a red-headed woodpecker we heard. Once we entered the woods, we started seeing Spring Beauties everywhere. So, we just sauntered through the large tract of woods looking for anything we might find. I’m hoping my former co-workers at the Garden aren’t upset for me posting about being off trail, but we didn’t tromp through the meadows where I know they are reintroducing several species of wildflowers to compliment their mowing and prescribed burning efforts. And, in these crazy times, a little distance from the other trail users isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you are respectful of the forest inhabitants.

violets and spring beauties

Violets and Spring Beauties growing against a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

spring beauty flowers

A pair of Spring Beauties showing the difference in age of the flowers – the one on the left is younger since you can see the stamens loaded with pink pollen; the one on the right has the three-part pistil showing and the stamens have laid back against the petals to lessen the chances of self-fertilization.

atamasco lily

A pleasant surprise was finding many clumps of Atamasco Lily throughout the forest floodplain.

Devil’s Urn or Black Tulip (Urnula craterium)

A clump of Devil’s Urn (aka Black Tulip) fungi, Urnula craterium.

I noticed some interesting looking fungi along the edges of a branch lying on the ground. I remember seeing these in a recent FB post from Southern Piedmont Natural History (check out their free ebook here).

Devil’s Urn or Black Tulip (Urnula craterium) closeup

A closer view of Devil’s Urn fungi. As they mature, they get the scalloped edge.

This species typically is one of the earliest spring mushrooms and is usually found growing along the edge of fallen logs or branches (like we found them). When I looked online, I discovered a pretty cool fact about these unusual fungi – they hiss! Apparently, if you blow on them, they will release a cloud of spores and in doing so, make a hissing sound. Now I want to find some more and test this out (yup, our lives are pretty exciting).

marbled salamander

A beautiful female Marbled Salamander. They always seem to be smiling.

As we crossed back to the other side of the loop trail, I turned over a few logs looking for the salamanders that frequent this area. Melissa got lucky and found a beautiful female (they tend to have grayish blotches and males are usually white) under a rock. We admired her for a second, put the rock back in place, and gently laid her down alongside it, and she crawled back underneath. About then, our friend, Mary, was coming up the trail, camera in hand. She is an excellent naturalist and photographer, and gave us an update on some of the birds she has been seeing. We went looking for a barred owl she sees frequently, but had no luck. But, given how things are, I think we will have ample time for another visit to check things out. Here’s hoping you all can get out and enjoy your surroundings…stay safe.