Tag Archive: Plants

The freeskool in Ithaca offers some great classes, including one about fingerlakes plant communities offered by Adrian, a wonderful teacher. We had our first walk of the season this past sunday and went to Mullholland Wildflower preserve on Giles street to look at a typical flood plain forest. Note that is is still very early spring here so we learned to identify these trees without leaves!

Here is what I learned. The two main trees that makes up this floodplain community in the fingerlakes are the sycamore and the cottonwood. The Sycamore is a very distinctive tree due to its beautiful, multi colored bark, which once you know it, is unmistakable. But on an older tree you may have look up a bit to see this distinctive bark as often the older bark down below is less distinctive. 

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

The sycamore tree is an important tree in the ecosystem as they often have large hollows that provide good habitat for animals. We even saw one with a beehive in it where the bees seemed to be just waking up after the winter and buzzing around!

Here are a few other characteristics of the sycamore tree. It’s branching and leaf pattern is alternate rather than opposite or whorled. And it has a large fruit that it drops in early spring, around May and is somewhat spiny. If you are around sycamore trees you will see them everywhere on the ground in late spring. I had always seen these fruits but not known which tree they belonged to. And their leaves are large and broad, somewhat like a maple leaf.

Sycamore leaf and fruit

Sycamore leaf and fruit

Although these trees are often planted in places that are not floodplains and can survive in such conditions if you seem them in a natural habitat this may indicate a wet area or a flood plain. Look for some of the other species I will talk about next if you suspect it is!

The second main tree species in the flood plain community of the fingerlakes is the cottonwood. Cottonwood trees are fast growing trees in the poplar family, which is distinguished by deep, fissured bark, that appear to have almost diamond shaped fissures. The leaf and branch pattern of this tree is also alternate, like the sycamore. The cottonwoods we saw here were different then the ones I was familiar with in the northwest, which tended to be very tall and straight in stature, and often seemed to be planted as a hedgerow tree. These cottonwoods in the northeast were not as straight, although still quite tall.

The cottonwood wood is known to be good for carving and is what we used in Michigan for our timber framing project. It is relatively soft and straight grained.

Cottonwood bark

Cottonwood bark

Its leaves tend to be relatively small and heartshaped, with wavy edges that can be seen in the picture below, and their fruit are small and hang in clusters, and produce a cottony pollen after they ripen in June.

Cottonwood fruit and some leaves

Cottonwood fruit and some leaves. These green pods with burst open soon and let out their billowy pollen. Later in the season towards the fall they tend to turn a bit red-ish in color.

These two species, the cottonwood and the sycamore are the two plants that define this floodplain community. We also learned about a common understory tree in the community, the  box elder, latin name acer negundo. For those of you who are familiar with latin names you will notice that it is in the maple family. I had heard people talk about box elder’s and when we were guessing the identity of the tree I guessed that is was a maple, but I didn’t know that the box elder was a maple! Did you know that there are over 100 species in the maple family?! Well, apparently there are.

I guessed that the box elder was a maple because it had many burls and my woodurner friend had been talking about how maples tend to have large burls, which he likes to work with on the lathe.

In this community the box elder is often an understory tree and grows almost like a weed. Because it is competing for light it tends to be in a somewhat stressed condition, causing to to send out many leafy sprouts in an attempt to have more surface area from which to photosynthesize.

Box elder leaves and seeds

Box elder leaves and seeds

I also came to recognize the black cherry tree on this walk, a tree not necessarily typical of the flood plain community. This tree has wonderful wood for burning or smoking things and also has quite distinctive bark. Someone on our walk described it to me as potato chip bark and I think that will always stick with me. Also, as its name implies the bark is quite dark in color.

Black Cherry bark

Black Cherry bark

The fruit of this tree is also quite yummy and can be used to make jams and pies is what I hear, but the birds often get to them first!

Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree

Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree

Now you are a little more familiar with one of many flood plain communities! Try seeing if you can find a flood plain community in your area and see how it differs and is similar to this one! If you want to read more about this particular flood plain community a great resource is the online pdf version of the Guide to the Plant Communities of the Central Finger Lakes Region by Charles L. Mohler, Peter L. Marks, and Sana Gadescu which can be found here through cornell’s ecommons.

One last cool thing I learned from a fellow student on the plant walk was a handy acronym by which to remember the trees that have opposite branching patterns: MAD CAP HORSE. Here is how it works

M – maple

A – ash

D – dogwood

CAP – caprifoliaceae family (honeysuckly and vibernum family)

HORSE – horse chestnut

All of these have opposite branching and leafing patterns, while the others tend to have alternate or whorl patterns. Opposite means that they will branch both ways at each point, giving the plant an overall somewhat symmetrical look.

Hope you learned something!

Until next time…


My travel luck seems to be continuing. My bus from Seattle to Anacortes, where the ferry’s leave the mainland for the San Juan Islands, got to the dock just minutes before the 2:40pm ferry left. Had I missed it I would have had to wait until 4:30 for the next ferry, which would not have been the end of the world but given that I was filled with excited anticipation it felt good to make the earlier boat and be on my way.

I quickly camped myself at the very front of the boat where I could stand in the wind, looking eagerly out over the beautiful water at what lay ahead; a much anticipated opportunity to work one on one with a skilled natural builder.  I had heard lots from Peter about Ryan and his cob house that he has been building on his own for the last three years, but now I am finally going to get to meet Ryan and see and work along side him on this house!

A beautiful afternoon on the ferry from the mainland to the islands

The ferry ride over was beautiful. Islands dotted the horizon in front of me, the sun was out and the water was blue. A seal poked its head out and said hello, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a pair of dorsal fins disappear under the water.

As a lone traveler it has always been easy for me to make friends on my travels. On the bus ride over to the port I met a man who was on his second sail around the world! He had gone to University in Binghamton, NY, not too far from Ithaca but had gone to the virgin islands after graduating and had ended up staying 6 months longer then he intended, learned to build boats, and has been doing that ever since.

On the ferry ride over I talked with a woman who was a holistic veterinarian. She was headed to the islands to learn from and film this woman who works with horses, developing an equal partnership with them rather than having a domineering relationship over them. I love hearing the stories of people I meet while traveling.

Upon arriving at Friday Harbor I sling one back pack on my back an the other on my front and head out to meet Ryan. There he is waiting for me right at the top of the ramp, with unmistakable shoulder length blond hair. This is our first actual meeting, although we have exchanged e mails and skyped a bit, but we give each other of hug hello and my adventure on the islands has begun!

The first evening we drove around the island a bit and went on a short hike near and old limestone mine. The views are breathtaking and conversation is easy. My first lesson in plants begins with learning about the beautiful Madrona tree that has an unmistakable red-purple bark that contrasts with vibrant yellow wood. Apparently this tree has the ability to photosynthesize through its wood so it often purposely sheds its bark where the sun is hitting it to make use of the light. So cool!

Rocky outcroppings right in front of the beach house.

He treats me to dinner and then after running a few errands we head to his parents beach house. The approach to the house is long and windy but then we arrive. The house is sitting just a couple hundred feet from the water, with huge glass windows that face southwest. The waves crash on rock outcroppings and you can hear the wind blow through the open fields.

Over the course of the week I  learn that much of the grasses growing around the house are not native. There is also a Himalayan Blackberry that seems to be aggressively taking over, and although the berry’s are yummy, the thorns are vicious and they choke out all other plants. Ryan has been working to cut back some of these Himalayan Blackberry bushes and give some of the native species a competitive advantage. The native species include a type of rose and a shrub called snow berry.

The view from the beach house porch.

After calling it a night I retire to my loft that will be my home while I stay here. It is a nice big open loft from which I can see right out the big windows to the ocean. I wonder if I will be able to sleep as I am so excited to see the cob structures the next day!

Indeed I find myself awake at 4am with anticipation. I manage to fall back into a light sleep but am up as soon as I hear Ryan moving about downstairs at about 6:30, before the sun has even risen.

So we are up before sunrise, drinking tea and making eggs with some beans a cheese for breakfast. We eat a relaxed breakfast, pack some lunch and are on our way out the door by about 8:30 or so.

First stop is GD cat. I soon learn that Ryan is responsible for taking care of his parents cat, who stays at their town house (which I am thankful for as I am allergic to cats).  This means each day begins and ends with a stop at the town house to feed the cat and let it in or out. The abbreviation, GD, stands for a not so affectionate term that Ryan occasionally uses when the cat is being particularly difficult.

Then we are off to The Pump House. The pump house is exactly that, a cob pump house that Ryan is building for someone on the island whose old pump house had partially burned down. When we pull into the driveway I am amazed to see an almost finished, adorable little round structure with a cedar shingle roof on it that makes me think of an owl’s wings. Yes, something about the structure makes me think that it is just going to lift off and fly away! It is absolutely wonderful.

The pump house from the front.

Ryan begins with a bit of an orientation to the site, the project, where he is at and what he has left to do. He points out to me the little stone borders he has used to create walkways, reminders to himself

and others to stay on the path and minimize impact to the area. He shows me how he decided to build the pump house right on top of the water tank, which already had a cement top, there giving him a pre-made floor and preventing him from having to create much more disturbance to the site. Then we get down to business and do a bit of cobbing, just adding a few more inches around the windows and the door. You can’t put too much on at a time without giving the cob time to dry because the wall will slump with all the weight. Because Ryan is pretty far along now he likes to do just a little bit of actual cob work each day, sealing up holes around windows, doors, and ceilings, and doing finishing work.

The pump house from the back.

Now it is off to the “Mud Hut,” or the real cob house that I am SO excited to see. After a short drive we are there. Before we pull into the driveway Ryan asks me if I can see the house. I look, but all I see is woods. This is what he hopes for as he wants his houses to blend into the landscape. Then we pull into the driveway and walk down a short little windy path, also bordered by stones. And there it is! Tucked back into the hill, an adorable little cottage!


Although it is not quite finished it is beautiful, with a living roof, earth bermed in the back, and as inviting as any little cottage in the woods I have ever seen. As I enter the house there is a large blue stone inset into some beautiful sunburst woodwork in the floor – quite impressive. On the right is what will be the kitchen area, with a water and electrical line already coming in, and a large wood stove that Ryan obtained for free from someone

Approaching the cob house from the path.

replaces theirs. Then in the right back is what will be the bedroom; a kind of raised loft with a partial wall. This structure wraps around a little atrium that Ryan calls the tree room; a little out door room with a tree standing in the middle. He thinks the tree will have to be cut but he may put a little table and an outdoor hearth there. From a separate entrance a root cellar wraps around the back of the structure helping create an air barrier between the cob structure and the living roof that becomes the hill. Lastly, the roof extends a bit on one side giving Ryan a bit of a covered shed where he can store stacked wood and other things.

The cob house from the front, in all it's glory.

But before I go too much into the building itself I must tell you that Ryan spent three months on the land just deciding where to site it. He wanted the building to blend in and he wanted to create as little additional disturbance as possible. He tells me how he knew the site had been quite disturbed previously from looking at the soil horizons, the plants that are growing, and some of the clearly chain sawed stumps that are around. Ryan also has an amazing ability to see and anticipate succession. He points out a few pines that he says aren’t very happy and are probably on their way out. Also there are a few deciduous that he anticipates will be shaded out soon by the Douglas Firs  that dominate the island. He explains how the fact that the trees are rather small and still growing quite close together means that it is a young forest in which it is basically a free for all race to see who can survive. But as the forest matures it will thin out and probably lose some of its diversity in trees as early transitional species get shaded out and die.

All of this is fascinating to me and as the week goes on I find that I will be learning lots about not just cob, woodworking, and building, but also plants and ecosystems. By the end of the first week I am learning to be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, and Pine up close and even at a distance as we drive by. Ryan is also really good at identifying what kind of tree a piece of driftwood came from – that one is more difficult for me.

Working on the mud hut and pump house is slow and steady work, but it feels like it is

Sunburst woodwork in the floor. I can't wait to see what it looks like when it is sanded, stained, and varnished!

feeding my soul. I like the rhythm of our days a lot. We go to bed early and get up before the sun rises. We eat a big breakfast, take a lunch break and eat yummy dinners. Each day we probably do a bit of cob mixing (two buckets of sand mixed with a bucket of wet clay, add more of each to taste and then some straw. All mixed with your feet of course.) and a bit of cob laying on one part or another of the wall. Right now the priority is to try and get all the holes filled before winter really sets in we have been working on getting windows how we want them and installing them. Ryan is a perfectionist who values craftsmanship so we work carefully, seeing how each modification to the window framing and the cob affects the light, the aesthetics of the window etc. At the end of each day we try to do a reflection, noting everything that we did that day and giving ourselves a pat on the back for our hard work. We also seem to work really well together, bouncing ideas off each other and trouble shooting together. I find myself not wanting to stop and we often work past sundown.

All in all it has been a fabulous week. I am a bit sad to leave honestly and excited that I will be coming back after the holidays. The first week, which was meant to be sort of a trial week, has been a huge success. Maybe I could do this for a living….!

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