Late Fall Color: Fruit, not Foliage!

Recent rainy and windy weather may have finished off most of our autumn leaves, but there’s still plenty of color across the Nantucket landscape.

The Science & Stewardship staff at NCF would like to wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving, and encourage you to enjoy the natural beauty of the island around you. It’s deer hunting season, so be sure to check out information on which NCF properties are open for hunting, and important guidelines for hunters: 2015 Deer Hunting Information. It’s a good idea to wear your own fall color (blaze orange!) while out walking in the fall. Hunting is prohibited on Sundays, making it a particularly good time to get out and enjoy the autumn scenery.

This year has been a particularly heavy fruit production year for many of our native shrub and tree species. Right now, Eastern red cedar and winterberry holly are stealing the show.

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No doubt about it — Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) has a bumper crop of fruit this year. Photo: K.A. Omand.

Eastern red cedar (actually a species of juniper) produces waxy fruits that span a surprising palette — from nearly white to bright cornflower or deep indigo. The branches of these scrappy little trees are especially heavily laden this year. It’s the biggest crop I’ve seen in the eight years that I’ve lived on island. That’s a good thing for our local birds: the National Wildlife Federation describes juniper as one of the “top ten plants for wildlife” since it provides such wonderful shelter and food during the winter months. Cedar waxwings love this fruit so much that, well, they’re named for it!

Interestingly enough, the bright fleshy fruits of junipers are actually cones. Unlike more familiar pine and spruce cones, the scales of a juniper cone are fleshy and fused together, making the whole package edible to a hungry bird. Unlike a woody-scaled pine or spruce cone, which requires a bird to spend time removing individual seeds from between the scales, the juniper cone is truly fast food! So, when you are out driving around the island or enjoying a nature trail or bike path, take a minute to appreciate the bounty of these little trees. That’s a lot of food for birds to be thankful for this year. Cedar may not be a majestic tree, but it contributes a lot to the island ecosystem.

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Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is very common in many habitats on Nantucket, from dunes to shrublands. Photo: K.A. Omand.

In addition to the wash of blue juniper berries, you may have noticed that a lot of bushes have recently shed their leaves, revealing branches heavily studded with hard fruit that look like waxy gray bucky-balls, aka Buckminsterfullerene. If you don’t know what I mean, take a close-up look at the neatly pixelated surface of a bayberry fruit, and do your Googling. That textured surface, on a bayberry fruit at least, is a mosaic of waxy coating that’s unappetizing to humans, but provides a high-energy food source for migrating birds in the fall.

By late November, the migrating hordes have diminished, but the remaining bayberries provide a welcome food source for our resident birds. Who sticks around in the winter? That should be a subject for another NCF Science & Stewardship blog post!

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Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is our common native holly, found in wetland edges around the island. Photo: K.A. Omand.

Maybe the cool blues and grays of red cedar and bayberry are not your groove, but you just can’t stop admiring the scarlet display of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) surrounding the island’s ponds? You are not alone. We’re fortunate that winterberry holly is so common here on Nantucket. It’s another tough customer, but one that likes its feet wet. However, it could also find a good home in your yard– it’s a useful landscape plant in moderate conditions, and is readily available from nurseries in a range of colors and growth forms. Just be sure to get some female plants for the bright berries, as well as a male for pollination, if you don’t live near an established patch of winterberry.

Yes, you heard me right: winterberry holly is either male or female, and only the female plants produce fruit. Actually, the same is true of bayberry and red cedar. But both red cedar and bayberry are wind pollinated, while winterberry’s tiny white flowers require insects to visit and carry pollen from plant to plant.

Be sure to get out and explore the natural beauty of the island this fall. Take a moment to consider the value of our protected open landscapes– and the interesting plants and animals that call Nantucket home! Like the birds, we have a lot to be thankful for, too.

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View of Stump Pond, Windswept Cranberry Bog, with both Nantucket Conservation Foundation and Nantucket Islands Land Bank Trails for public use. Photo: K.A. Omand.

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