My favorite shrub of beach environments is the beach plum. I always look forward to its prolific blooms of five-petaled white flowers in the spring. Once pollinated by bees and other pollinators, it produces lots of fruit that are green at first, but by the end of the summer the fruit ripen into a deep-purple fruit.
Not only are beach plums a delicacy to wildlife, people also harvest it, often to make beach plum jellies and jams. Some people eat them off the shrub, but it is not a taste that everyone likes. I have heard many versions of its taste from a cross between strawberry and an apricot to cranberry-peach. Its skin is tart, but its flesh is sweet.
It grows along the coast from Maryland to Maine in interdunal swales behind the protection of the primary dunes. It thrives on the shores of Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard, but is endangered in Maine and Maryland.
My first encounter with this thorny vine was as a 10-year old boy traipsing through the woodlands on Long Island in New York. It formed impenetrable thickets in the wetlands near the house I grew up in. Its sharp thorns caught my clothing and it did not easily let go. I eventually broke free, full of scratches, swearing never to stumble across it again.
There are many species in this family. The stems on common greenbrier are crayon green with numerous thorns. Its leaves are round shaped and it produces pale green flowers in the spring and early summer. Its tendrils enable the vine to climb onto shrubs and trees.
This greenbrier’s berries are purplish-black and this fruit persists into the winter when birds and wildlife will eat it. Its leaves also persist into the winter until deer carefully pull off the leaves for nourishment.
Its thorns are a way the plant protects itself from being dined on so it can be a nasty plant when encountered. It sure kept me away from it when I played in the woods!
If you see a small tree with with white blossoms that looks similar to a wild rose flowers, you may have found a species of chokeberry. Its five petaled bloom with pink stamens attract bees responsible for pollination. These small trees are four to eight feet tall and are members of the rose family. These dot the May woodlands in semi-dry and wet habitats.
There are two prominent species in the eastern U.S. One is red chokeberry with red fruit and the other is black chokeberry with purplish-black fruit. The berries on both these plants resemble small apples. As you can imagine, these fruits are treasured by birds.
There are other subtle differences that I will not bore you with here, but if you are able to recognize it as a chokeberry, then a good identification book will help you decide which species you have found.
The last few blogs, I featured some of the members of the heath family of plants including blueberry, huckleberry and swamp sweet bells. Another member of this family and sometimes mistaken for blueberry because of its white bell-like blossoms is the leatherleaf.
Leatherleaf has dark green leathery leaves on arching shoots often growing along the edges of streams and ponds. This shrub’s white bell-like blossoms bloom in a five-inch raceme at the tip of the plant. These flowers do not produce berries; its fruit is a dry woody capsule.
This shrub thrives in bogs and wetlands from the Arctic south to Georgia.
Swamp Sweet Bell Blossoms grow tightly on one sided racemes.
Blueberries have hanging bell-like blossoms.
A shrub often mistaken for high-bush blueberry because it grows in the same habitat and also has white bell shaped-blossoms that bloom in the spring is swamp sweet bells.
Sometimes called fetterbush, its blooms are clustered at the tip of its branches in one sided four-inch long racemes. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators visit the flowers for nectar. These blossoms grow into woody capsules that drop seeds in the fall.
This shrub can be found in wetlands and along the edge of streams from the mid-Atlantic States to the Gulf Coast States. There are many species of plants with the name “fetterbush” with similar characteristics, some have pink blossoms and some are evergreen.
The next time you take a walk in the woods in the spring and see white bell-like blossoms, don’t assume the flowers are from blueberry.
There are many species of blueberries and huckleberries. In the last two blogs, I focused on several species of blueberry – lowbush blueberry and highbush blueberry and one species of huckleberry – the black huckleberry. There is another species of huckleberry that grows in the pine barrens and unlike the black huckleberry that has black fruit, the dangleberry huckleberry grows blue fruit.
This shrub is found in the U.S. coastal plain from New Hampshire to Georgia and thrives in acidic sandy soils. Its blossoms are greenish buff with tinges of orange. Its berries are powder blue.
It, too, has edible berries. Birds and wildlife enjoy these blue fruits and so do I. But again, be cautious as to what you eat in the wild. There are poisonous berries everywhere!!!
The other day, I talked about walking through a pine barrens woodland where I saw blueberries in the understory of the oak forest. (See: “White Bells in the Pine Barrens”.) In addition to the white bells, I saw the reddish bells of another shrub with similar attributes growing amongst the blueberries – the black huckleberry.
Black huckleberry looks similar to the low bush blueberries, but it grows taller reaching up to three feet tall. This huckleberry species has orange-red blossoms that, if pollinated, will produce black fruit.
Unlike blueberries, huckleberries have resinous leaves. If you look at the underside of the huckleberry leaf you will see tiny yellow resin dots. This resin reduces the loss of water via transpiration which is important to a plant that grows in dry, sandy, acidic soils.
Huckleberries can be found in the eastern U.S. in places with dry acidic soils. Yes, huckleberries are edible, but be sure it is a huckleberry and not some random poisonous berry that will make you sick.