The warty assassin of Camp Salmen is the dark, malignant Mr. Toad. He lurks in the shadows by day, hiding under logs and debris or backed down into holes into which one should probably not reach; staring blankly out at the world, throat thumping, pondering heavy fate, biding his time for the night...
It is then he steps from his obscure hideout to become a Night Terror, going where insects are attracted to light and scarfing up any invertebrate that amble too close or have the misfortune to fall or land in front of him. His fat, sticky tongue, hinged from the front of his wide, trap door mouth, leaps out in an instant. Before the bug knows what happened, it is glued and quickly ushered past the throbbing throat to an unspeakable end.
The three types of toads common to Slidell are the Fowler's (Bufo fowleri), Gulf Coast (Bufo valliceps) and the Coastal Plain Toad (Bufo nebulifer). All three are similar in appearance with lumps, bumps and warts, a faint stripe in the middle of the back and its own pattern of dark spots and splotches on top and pale color underneath. They pose a similar threat to anyone stupid or desperate enough to put one in their mouth and get a dose of sticky toxin that can inflame the tissues, cause nausea, irregular heart beat and possibly death, or at least taste bad. Our readers should avoid doing this or licking their fingers after handing the amphibian. Toad worshipers in the American Southwest and elsewhere on the planet have been known to do this on purpose for the psychoactive bufotoxins, but they’re just crazy.
This brings up some important Toad Questions:
- Q: Where is Toad Suck, AR and why is it called that? A: One theory says the drunken river men working on the Arkansas River went to town and "sucked on the bottle 'til they swoll up like toads" and another says the name is based on a French term for a river channel. At least the Arkansans were wise enough to lay off the toads.
- Q: Why do toads pee on your hand and what does this accomplish? A: Unlike the abovementioned problem, this particular body fluid-release is mostly water and its main intention is to make you immediately set the toad back down.
- Q: What did Jim Morrison mean when he sang, “His brain was squirming like a toad,” in the Doors’ song LA Woman? A: Obviously this song was about a tortured soul and written by a tortured soul, or he was singing about a person who had just put a toad in his mouth.
Out of Camp Salmen’s total of 130 acres it is estimated some twenty are old clay pits left from when Fritz Salmen mined clay here between 1901-24 for his brick factory by the tracks in Old Town Slidell. He acquired this and many other parcels of land in the greater Slidell area with an eye toward harvesting their stands of virgin Longleaf Pine for lumber and the clay from underneath for bricks. As Fritz always wished to see his land remain productive, he gave it to the Boy Scouts afterward for their summer camp.
The depressions left by these mining operations afford variety to the topography, ecology and hydrology in today’s nature park. Since these areas hold water for part of the year, the presence of certain trees and plants are favored or diminished and certain ecologic zones like the park’s Gum Swamp are maintained.
The clay deposits likely came from North America’s post-glacial period when rivers across the Southland flowed in greater volume with melt-water and heaps of sediments toward the southern sea. This likely caused the mighty Pearl River and Bayou Liberty to be interconnected leaving huge sandy ridges on their banks, like the park’s Camp Ridge. The finer clays settled in the still waters behind these ridges, where the clay pits are located.
The early French colonial settlers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain who founded old Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty took advantage of these clay deposits by making bricks for local use and export to the growing south shore capitol city. Numerous building footings, chimneys, hearths, floors, patios, walks, walls and steps in today’s French Quarter were possibly made of Bayou Liberty brick.
Brick making was a “cottage industry” for generations of bayou residents until Fritz Salmen came to town. Through hard work, determination, genius and good timing he created a modern brick-manufacturing juggernaut by the track, literally putting Slidell on the map and providing thousands of local jobs and millions of bricks for the region.
Fritz’s principal tools for mining, or in the parlance of brick making, “winning” the clay, were the railroad track and the steam shovel. In these steam-driven times railroads went pretty much everywhere and temporary tracks were laid for the heavy equipment that was needed. Indeed, rail bed scars remain in the park where the ground was leveled and ditched for tracks to the clay pits.
Logging first removed the trees by train then Fritz probably had skilled prospectors “read” the lay of the land to find the most likely spots for the clay accumulations. Core sampling probably got a more precise fix on them.
The steam shovels of Fritz’s time looked like a wooden caboose with a smoke stack that housed the engine and machinery. The scoop dumped the clay into special rail cars that took their precious load to Fritz’s factory. A modern term for this is strip mining, where an overburden is first removed, in this case dirt and organic debris that had accumulated above the clay deposit, and then the clay deposit itself was scraped out of the pit.
These procedures were duplicated numerous times in and around Slidell and the pits from this era can be found today here and there inside and outside of the city and up and down the Great Pearl River Valley.
The Cat is Out of the Bag
The cat is out of the bag, the horse has left to barn, the train has left the station and Pandora’s Box has been opened. Through man’s relatively new and efficient modes of transportation (ships, planes, trains and automobiles), the great potential for making the transport of non-native species into various areas of the world, has been realized. Organisms that would have normally migrated slowly by natural processes, if at all, have almost suddenly been redistributed and given a chance to take root in places they normally would not have occurred and, unfortunately, original animal and plant communities that had slowly evolved together must now contend with outside invaders.
At Camp Salmen, foreign species like Christmas Berry, Chinese Privet, Tallow trees, Japanese Climbing Fern, Wisteria, Fire ants, Cherokee climbing rose, Legustrum, Mimosa, Formosan termites, Cogon grass, Tung Nut trees and Fig vines are firmly established and some are aggressively muscling in on the natives. We’ve tried to find and control some of the more obvious and egregious ones like Cherokee rose, Fire ants, Cogon grass and Tallow, but some defy these efforts through sheer numbers, camouflage or even craftiness. Of course, we’ve sent some of our own emissaries abroad on the counter-attack like Muskrats, Canadian geese, crayfish, webworms, Loblolly pine mealy bugs, Red-eared turtles, Goldenrod and good old American cockroaches (a.k.a. Palmetto bugs).
However, all is not lost. Obviously, the great preponderance of native species remain right where they’ve been at Camp Salmen, singing kumbaya together as they have for centuries. It remains to be seen if any of the invaders won’t reach some kind of limit to their spreading, or possibly falter and fail naturally, or be successfully eradicated. Who knows what our ecology will eventually evolve into, or even whether it will stay that way very long. On a planetary scale, as far as ecology is concerned, we are in new territory.
In the meantime, environmentally responsible citizens can help preserve the ecologies of ours and other areas by following advice recently promoted by The Nature Conservancy: be careful to remove seeds clinging to or hidden on shoes and clothing before traveling to new locales; don’t release aquarium fish, plants, bait minnows, bugs and mudbugs or any other exotic organisms, no matter what the species, into a new habitat where that species did not originate; don’t move cut firewood from dead trees very far because it may be infected with dangerous pests; beware of transporting a new pest found in leaf compost, the Asian jumping worm; if you’re a hunter don’t dump hogs in the woods to hunt, because once they get loose they multiply and cause environmental damage; similarly, advocate and/or participate in responsible deer management so this species does not also get out of control.
Other than their ability to effortlessly shoot up and down tree trunks and hop around from branch to branch, the Grey Squirrel’s (Sciurus carolinensis) most noteworthy feature is it’s expressive, bushy tail. It doubles its apparent length, size and demeanor. Without these tails, it would appear that Camp Salmen has an infestation of disinterested but agile, grey-brown rats scurrying about. While there are many similarities between the two creatures, the addition of this fluffy, furry, flexible feature is a great identifier and gives the animal a personality that convinces some people the animal is somehow the “cuter” one of the tw
What is a squirrel’s tail good for? Well, on a squirrel, other than deflecting criticism for its misbehaviors, it’s got a number of key functions:
Firstly, it’s got to be properly managed. The animal is obliged to keep a 90-degree kink in its spine at all times to keep the thing from dragging and collecting mud and dirt. And of course, there’s the grooming to keep the thing neat, pretty and floofed-up in order to maintain appearances.
It is a “window to the soul,” as its motion expresses the animal’s many moods – twitching with anger and agitation at the presence of a rival male, for instance, or a nearby predator or displayed in a state of calm fluffiness that expresses its great happiness and contentment at finding yet another lost nut it had stored last summer.
The tail is renowned as a balancing tool to get the animal through perilous circumstances, like the aforementioned tree hopping. What person has never seen a “tree-rat” scampering overhead on a telephone wire across a busy city street? They hold the thing straight out to get maximum effect from the tail’s weight and twitch it to a fro for balance as it cautiously makes its way across.
In winter the squirrel can turn its tail into a luxuriant stole and wrap it around itself for protection and warmth high up in its tree nest.
In the heat of summer one might notice certain “rattiness” in some of our squirrel’s tails. One reason is that mammals are covered with hair and must loose some of it at this time of year or else they’d become over-insulated and succumb to heat prostration.
Another thing that a squirrel’s tail is good for is, believe it or not, is its use OFF of the squirrel. There is a thriving business in “recycling” used squirrel tails to turn the fur into just the right kind of fly-fishing lure to entice Mr. Trout. Of course, these companies are only interested in squirrels that are “harvested” for the table (“Squirrel, it’s the other red meat!”) and not wantonly slaughtered just for the tails. One ingenious squirrel hunter even hangs one from the muzzle to his rifle to make adjustments for the wind so he van get an accurate shot to efficiently bring Mr. or Mrs. Squirrel home to dinner.
The Scout and the Umbrella
By the 1920s Fritz Salmen was at the height of his career. His brick manufacturing plant in Slidell was admired nationally and its prodigious output had a large part in the expansion and modernization of the Central Business District in New Orleans, with its many fine, large masonry buildings. He had his fingers in many different pies with pursuits in farming and land development, retail outlets, ship construction and shipping, railroads, imports and exports and of course, lumber and clay products. He had important business associations with many other powerful men in the region and had even tried his hand in the Louisiana State Legislature by shepherding his interests there as a Representative. Additionally, the welfare of his family and relatives in his enterprises and most of the citizens in the town he helped build (and who helped build him) were among his many concerns.
Here and there at Camp Salmen are the tall, dark green stalks of my old friend the Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). It seemed it was the only thing spouting from the black, cakey, organic soils of the vast suburb built on an unfortunate, former-marsh that was the Metairie where I grew up. Huge banks of the stuff formed the back-drop of many of my outdoor adventures.
Water Oaks (Quercus nigra) are notorious. They grow quickly, taking only about half a century to attain HUGE proportions. Some get over 100 feet tall and reach three feet in diameter and look quite noble doing it, providing much beauty and shade to a homestead. Then they start dropping their giant limbs on houses, yards and cars and continue to gradually die in a squalid, destructive manner, causing much heartache for homeowners who were once quite proud of their lovely, quick-growing shade tree.
The People of Bayou Liberty
The centerpiece of Camp Salmen is its frontage on the atmospheric Bayou Liberty and our historic Salmen Lodge, one of the oldest buildings in St. Tammany Parish. Let’s contemplate the long human history here.
The Paleo-Indians were the first to arrive, about 10-13,000 years ago. Eventually, they were followed by the more advanced Mississippian mound builders, and then the recent modern tribes like Colapissa, Tangipahoa and Choctaw identified by the early European explorers and colonists. This continent’s original peoples traveled in dugout pirogues on the bayou as well as to far-away places up and down the Mississippi River Valley for trade. Then the French arrived.
Among the first to escape Bienville's 1720s civic experiment on the muddy banks of the Mississippi and cross over to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain were Claude Vignon, nicknamed “Lacombe,” and Bartram Jaffery, nicknamed “La Liberte” — gentlemen for whom their respective bayous were named. They lived among the Indians in relative freedom and made a living from the area’s natural resources.
More Frenchmen, then Africans, Spanish, English and Americans, eventually arrived to join with the remaining natives. They created a melting-pot community that came to be known as Bonfouca, a Choctaw word meaning river residence. The Spanish, who governed Louisiana right after the French called people born and raised in their far-flung empire Creole and many in the Bonfouca community today call themselves by this name.
These earlier Bonfoucans farmed, fished, hunted and produced building products, from the abundant natural resources in the area. They dug up sand and gravel, made bricks from clay and lime, for mortar by burning clam-shells. There were many more things to be made from the native Longleaf pine trees including tar and pitch from the tree’s resin (for making canvas and rope waterproof and rot resistant), barrel staves, lumber, shingles, charcoal and, especially, beautiful wooden boats from which Bayou Liberty gained a significant maritime heritage. Roads and railroads gradually took over these duties and now the bayou stays mostly quiet.
A boat that once lived at Camp Salmen was the “Marguerite,” a forty-eight foot schooner owned by Joseph Laurent, the man who built the Old Trading Post in the early 1800s. The post is now called the Salmen Lodge, and is one of the oldest buildings in St. Tammany Parish. The boat was built on the nearby Tchefuncte River in 1811 and Laurent was recorded sailing her several times to the Port of New Orleans on Bayou St. John, to deliver north shore products and return with goods and people from the city. The bayou in front of his trading post happened to be wide enough to turn this boat around so it could be docked and loaded for the next voyage.
The old trading post remained a community store and operated a ferry crossing the bayou until shortly after 1901 when Fritz Salmen turned it into a commissary for his loggers and clay diggers. After their work was done the property was given to the Boy Scouts, and the rest is history.
We are all too familiar with our little friend the mosquito. Along with all the other organisms closely associated with humans throughout our life’s journey, mostly beneficial gut bacteria, these little devils hover expectantly about our heads like an annoying halo, waiting for a chance to strike and draw blood. They can shadow us night or day, though most species are crepuscular, that is, they have a preference for hunting down humans and other warm-blooded animals at dawn and dusk.
Insects in Winter
Notice anything different about the winter at Camp Salmen, beside that it’s colder? No insects! (Or, at least, a very few.) For creatures that seem to be everywhere and in great variety and profusion in summer, it is remarkable to contemplate their absence between then and now.
Unlike us metabolically warm, fat and happy mammals clothed in furs and stylish clothing, the naked insect, whether spindly or plump, can’t produce its own heat and can only react to colder temperatures by slowing to a stop. So where are they now? Are they all underfoot, as billions of larvae buried in the soil? Did they fly south for the winter like birds do? Do some of them actually tough it out through winter’s freezes? It turns out, all three scenarios can happen to different kinds of insects.
Some dragonflies, beetles, butterflies and moths, in spite of their small size and apparent fragility, actually do travel great distances to relocate to warmer climes for the winter, more than likely to Mexico and Central America. They take advantage of northerly gusts of seasonal winds or try to find the calmer layers in the sky in which to make headway. Sensitive radars have been able to track diffuse clouds of insects doing this. More often than not, this is a one-way trip for them as the insect reproduces while on vacation and leaves it to its offspring to make the return trip.
Surviving the fate of actually freezing solid and coming back to life afterward is a tough act. Very few insects do it, as cellular disruption by expanding ice crystals can be an ugly thing in a small body. However, some, like the Wooly Bear caterpillar of the Tiger Moth, an Antarctic midge, certain beetles and, of course, some cockroaches can pull it off. For those bugs that don’t have enough anti-freeze in them to put off the last little bit of total freezing, they can use the trick of having nucleating proteins that slow things down enough to let the cells shift around to temporarily accept freezing solid and will miraculously re-animate when regaining their liquids.
The great majority of insects, be they eggs, larvae or adults, endure winter underground, just beyond frosts and ice, or protected inside something like a rotten log or a hole. Most rely on the chemical tricks of an internal anti-freeze of salts, fats and water elimination on the chance they can hold total ice-crystallization at bay. Some make it, some don’t. These trillions of bugs, along with all the roots, microbes, earthworms and moles are now living underfoot at Camp Salmen, making a high percentage of biomass living within every cubic foot of our topsoil. Someday, the bugs will arise once again into the air when the warmer weather will allow them to fly in our faces and land in our soups.
A hideous Giant Black Horsefly (Tabanus atratus) landed in the cab of the Camp Salmen truck the other day and went right for the back glass. It buzzed around back there, seemingly fixated on the space, daylight and freedom imminently apparent beyond the invisible barrier. Rather than chasing it around the cab, the door was simply left open at the next stop. The fly was still there a short while later, too stuck on stupid to look around and try something imaginative like flying out of the open cab, so since it couldn’t make up its mind, the intense heat that would quickly build up inside the parked truck certainly would.
One of the reasons they have the name they do are the poor horses they torment. Sometimes these poor beasts seem sadly resigned to the constant assault from the insect and barely bothered to flinch. The Black Horsefly can and will attack a human but it’s not common. They would probably rather do it to a quiet horse than a fidgety human with hypersensitive skin and swift hands on the ends of long, articulated arms. Plus horseflies aren’t too swift.
Like many other parasitic, stinging insects, it’s the female that is responsible for these vicious attacks and is after a blood meal for producing her eggs. Her brutal technique is to jab a sharp, serrated, piercing and cutting instrument into the flesh of her victim in order to draw blood and soak it up with a sponge-like mouth tool. This can be a time-consuming procedure, which is another reason they’d prefer a horse. Oddly enough, the male of the species is just as big, black and nasty-looking as the female but has a different set of mouth tools and instead, spends his days idly lapping up nectar and pollen from flowers, right along with the butterflies.
Horseflies lay their eggs in aquatic environments like a stream bank or a pond’s edge. Their larvae can also bite, but having yet to develop legs or wings to move about they’re not much of a threat. However, since the sweet things will cannibalize other horsefly larvae they tend to grow up alone and retain the antisocial attitude of a true punk.
There are some 1,400 species of bamboo found in a wide band around the equator including most of South America, southern Asia, southern Africa, islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and our own Southeastern U.S. Oddly enough, all of these bamboos and canes are members of the grass family from a division specializing in having hard, stiff, hollow stalks. Depending on the species, these stalks can be just a few inches high or over 100 feet tall with a one-foot diameter. People use bamboo stalks for diverse purposes such as living vegetation barriers for landscaping, food, as structural elements in buildings, plumbing pipes and cane poles for fishing.
Fig Vine - Beware!
Across the parking lot from Camp Salmen’s office is an old brick well house, a relic of the park’s Boy Scout days. We affectionately call it The Brick House, after the 1970s pop song and use the building for storage. Awhile back, Boy Scout Garret West did the park a nice favor by replacing the building’s door and roof and installing new shelves inside to earn his Eagle Scout rank.
The structure is unique because it is almost completely covered in leafy Fig Vines (Ficus pumila). This makes it popular with professional photographers visiting the park and they often pose their clients in front of the picturesque greenery. This plant has grown so opulently it has cascaded from the walls of the house and has to be trimmed back now and again. The plant is yet another native of East Asia and has found the U.S. South to be a welcoming home. Landscapers love the stuff for it can grow abundantly on blank walls (and leave permanent scars from its rootlets). It also likes to grow onto neighboring vegetation and this trait has allowed it to obnoxiously heap itself onto two neighboring Live Oaks, cutting off their sunlight and adding bulk, weight and wind resistance to the tree’s limbs.
So, the diligent Park Ranger called out, “Mr. Fig Vine, unhand that tree!” and went after it with a pair of loppers. The vine apparently had a good head start for more than half of the tree’s lower trunk is wrapped in the vine’s woody embrace. Cutting into it was like trying to cut a ham hock. The ugly, fat, flat, grey vines are as hard as the tree and cling tightly, rooted to its bark with fine tendrils that look grotesquely like millipede legs. They hug the trunk so closely it‘s hard to get a good cut and it helped to use a crowbar to pry it up. Furthermore, the vine comes out of the ground in hidden locations, branches off, crosses one another and uses some sort of secret strategy to keep itself somehow alive in spite of the butchery handed to it by the Park Ranger, to whom it has effectively replied “Ha!” It still looks pretty healthy.
In the meantime, these vines are busily trying to propagate themselves by sprouting out hundreds of plump, bell-shaped, purple figs that fall and lay scattered under the trees, just waiting for someone to dare to take them home. Web sites that tout the plant’s usefulness in landscaping warn gardeners to keep an eye on it, lest it make a greedy grab for the neighboring plants or otherwise grow where it is not welcome. A web site with a more gastronomic theme says that while the “figs” are not harmful to eat, there is nothing at all to recommend them to your diet. A good house salad at a local restaurant or, better yet, actual figs from a fig tree (Ficus carica) would be surely be much more enjoyable.
Not too many mornings ago, a handsome, three-foot Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) was spotted on Parish Parkway at Camp Salmen. The snake was just lying there in mid-crossing, basking and glinting in the sunlight and adjusting his/her kinks every once in a while to betray signs of life. After a close-up viewing, a nudge to the tail prompted the animal to move on to the safety of the ditch and weeds alongside the road. Once the gates were opened and traffic into the park commenced the reptile's survivability at this particular location would have been greatly compromised.
Visitors driving into Camp Salmen on Parish Parkway these days will be able to appreciate our annual crop of tall, rangy Coffee Weed (Sesbania herbacea), the star of the park’s fascinating and constantly evolving ditch life. It pops up toward the end of the growing season and quickly grows into huge four and five-foot high banks of emerald green along the edge of the roadway — until the parish mowers arrive.
The plentiful natural resources found in St. Tammany Parish not only made it possible for the Europeans and Americans to live off the land as the Native Americans had done for thousands of years, it was possible for them to prosper though their industries. They harvested and manufactured things they needed to construct and sustain their homesteads and to help build and maintain the new city across lake. Besides growing crops and livestock for themselves and for market, they also provided building materials like masonry by baking clay into bricks, digging up sand and gravel and adding burned, crushed clamshells for lime to make the mortar needed to stick it all together. And then there were the hundred-and-one things one could do with a pine tree.
Butterflies of Late Summer
The two most prominent butterfly species at Camp Salmen this year seem to have been the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) and the Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). They are still quite noticeable, as plenty of them have survived to see the summer wind down.
The Black Swallowtail is the larger of the two. The male has gold dots on the lower part of its wings and the female has gold dots and lovely blue dots and tinges. The Sulphur is colored exactly that — pale sulfur yellow with a small brown spot on its wings. Its coloration may be used as camouflage as the bug seems to have a preference for yellow flowers and has been known to roost on plants with yellowish leaves.
The two butterflies have remarkably different ways of flying around. The Sulphur looks berserk with a jittery, jumpy flight that looks like it must take way too much energy to get anywhere. The Swallowtail looks positively serene in comparison, loping along coolly and gliding on outstretched wings on a straight and purposeful flight-path.
Both butterflies get an early start and spend the long season busily flitting around the park assisting flowering plants in their pollination and grabbing some nectar for themselves. While this act of symbiosis might be appreciated by the plants, they would probably rather be visited by a bee. Butterflies have to fold their great wings and heist them up out of the way, daintily standing with a spindly-legged stance on the flower’s petals and unroll their long proboscis down into the flower. Bees dive in and roll around to grub inside of the flower and get a good coating of pollen grains on their fur that they take to the next flower.
Unfortunately for them, Swallowtails and Sulphurs are food for predators and their numbers gradually diminish over the season. However, the Black Swallowtail has a secret weapon — their coloration is similar to a butterfly that is toxic and this act of mimicry tends to warn predators away. Plus they supposedly taste bad anyway because of the fennel, dill and parsley oils their previous caterpillar form had consumed. This unusual staying power allows some of these flying insects to last to the end of the summer season when some of the survivors can flee to Old Mexico on the winds of fall cool fronts.
We are proud, and sometimes even a little amazed, at the ever-changing assembly of “volunteer” native plants along Camp Salmen’s mile-long Parish Parkway. Here, a wonderful variety of native, herbaceous, non-woody plants are found, some, like the bright yellow Goldenrod and many others are now in full bloom.
These plants are known collectively as “forbs” by the botanists and include grasses, rushes, reeds, herbs, sedges and many other types. Each takes their turn during the growing season and some end up being more or less dominant by the season’s end.
Bees in the Trees
Every once in a while, an oak tree — especially a Southern Live Oak — will lose a branch. Perhaps the limb was under-producing and not bringing in enough carbohydrates to the mother tree, or it was injured. The woody root where the branch joined the tree, rots away and the tree’s living bark slowly knots-up around the wound to protect Mother. The result is a more or less permanent cavity and a place where numerous creatures can find shelter. One of these creatures might be the Honey Bee.
As autumn sets in, a truly ardent Camp Salmen regular might be asking themselves, “Hey, I was really enjoying the dire heat and humidity of summer; why, why, why do temperatures have to change with the seasons?” Let’s explore the reasons we have the two transitional seasons of spring and fall and the two extreme seasons of summer and winter.
One of the highlights of a recent, beautiful, warm spring day at Camp Salmen was the sight of a young, Blue-tailed skink (also known as, the American five-lined skink, also known as Plestiodon fasciatus) hunting with great abandon. He was not acting the way skinks usually do, being secretive and dodgy, quickly scampering in and out of cover; instead he was out in the open, aggressively scarfing down his victims, totally in the moment and oblivious to my being there.
First off, Blue-tailed skinks are exquisite to look at. Their bronze-colored bodies are tastefully pinstriped like a man’s business suit and their back half is a long, brilliant iridescent blue tail. Visitors to the park will often be fortunate enough to spot one basking in the sun as they stroll on one of our boardwalks.
This skink was working a patch of sandy ground that was apparently infested with some sort of little no-see-um bug — his manna from heaven. As he repeatedly dove in and out of the leaf litter he snapped repeatedly at the seemingly invisible prey and was apparently gorging himself. As he circled round and round to get at more, it was fascinating how sensuous his movements were.
The animal was clearly enjoying himself, making quick, jerky moves; caught up in a feeding frenzy. Perhaps he was preoccupied with the beauty of being alive and being a predator, the master of his own little domain. It was marvelous how expressive his tail was, its compound curves drawn up in kinks as he concentrated on the hunt. In one leap after another after each bug, one could tell it was his payday and he was clearly, intensely enjoying himself.
If you’ve ever been called a sapsucker before, you’d likely not forget it. Your ears burn and turn red, your nostrils flare and you get all upset. Then, if you’re called a yellow-bellied sapsucker, whoa, them’s fightin’ words. But do not despair. There is actually a bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) that visits Camp Salmen regularly. Perhaps this is what the person you thought was tormenting you actually meant. Since the bird is so pretty, crafty and clever and there are a lot worse things you might be called, it would be a good choice to take it all as a compliment.
Sapsuckers are woodpeckers. Their modus operandi is to peck a hole through the bark of a tree so the tree bleeds sap and then suck it up. (They actually stick their tongue out of the front of their bill and lap it up, doggie style. It is thought their saliva contains an anticoagulant to keep their bills from sealing shut from the sticky sap.) They return to these “sap wells” to maintain them and keep them flowing and can actually consume about a cup-full of the watery sap each day.
As an extra bonus, insects are attracted to the sweet sap and the sapsucker, like the carnivore it is, scarfs these up to round out their nutritional intake. They’ve been observed grabbing an ant, dredging it around in the sap like you or I would eat a Chicken McNugget and taking it to go to their young as a sweet treat.
The bird has beautiful, contrasting black and white striping, and a blaze of scarlet red on its head and throat. True to its name, it has a splash of yellow on its chest and belly. Sight unseen, they make a curious mewing sound like a cat in the woods and peck at trees with a slow, irregular tap, not a bit like Woody Woodpecker’s staccato.
Take a look at some of the trees in the woods, especially the thinned-skinned varieties like birch and Red Maple and note the rows of small, neat holes on the bark. This is the methodical work of the sapsucker. They clutch to the tree’s sides and lay a fresh pattern of holes through the bark and into the tree’s phloem, where its vascular systems lays. The tree responds by oozing its sweet juice into the wound.
Sapsuckers have been known to put so many holes up and down a tree’s trunk that they interrupt the flow of its vital juices, effectively girdling and killing it. Arborists trying to protect their orchards from these beasts are disappointed to find that, as a protected migratory species (they fly to Central America and the Caribbean and back every year), these birds mustn’t be killed outright, just discouraged. If an orchard operator has a sapsucker infestation, about the best he or she can legally do is try tricks like wrapping the tree’s trunks with burlap, use a sticky goo called “Tanglefoot” or partially give in by sacrificing certain trees in the orchard favored by the birds. At this point, arborists, at least, might have every right to be mad at being called a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Here and there in Camp Salmen's wilder, wetter grassy areas are clumps of the animal-eating Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata). While members of the Plant Kingdom are used to being bullied and eaten by animals, these green curiosities have turned the tables. They do this by making an interesting odor inside their tall pitcher and thus, lure anything with legs and wings that’s small, curious, hungry or greedy enough to crawl in. Once these creatures peer inside, they find a slippery slope and meet an almost certain death by drowning in the rainwater down on the bottom. The plant is then more than happy to absorb its carcass to gain valuable nutrition.
Recent study has revealed just how ecologically and chemically complex this rainwater really is. It is home to copepods, wriggling larvae, mites, rotifers, nematodes, assorted bacteria and algae. These do the actual work of tearing apart the victim and processing them, sometimes by way of their own digestion, into chemistry the plant can use.
Just as coyotes and their rodent prey are important components in the food web in which they operate, remove the predator and the rodents tend to overpopulate, so too are the denizens living in the water at in the bottom of the pitcher plant. Remove them, say with the indiscriminate use of insect killing pesticides, and the system might collapse and the plant will cease to thrive. This symbiotic relationship is a wonderful example of how a vital ecology can be conducted on a small scale and how susceptible it is to being upset.
This last point can be critical to a plant that is quite persnickety about where it grows and what it will put up with (moisture, sun and shade, competition and soil chemistry are critical factors and the plant hates even a molecular hint of a herbicide in its presence). It is found in only in one part of one area at Camp Salmen, in the Pine Savannah, and in only three other parishes in Louisiana east of the Mississippi River including many locations in St. Tammany Parish. Fortunately, this region is also home for the plant’s native habitat – the wet, boggy parts of the ancient Longleaf Pine savannah, with its own, unique ecological assemblage of plants and animals. We are fortunate and proud to have some of its representatives in our park.
If you’ve ever had Pine Nuts (a.k.a. pignolias) in your salad or on a dish you know what a fatty, sinful and heavenly little pleasure they are. If you’ve become instantly addicted to them and want more you probably won’t be able to get enough because they are usually packaged in exceedingly small quantities and cost the Earth. This is because of the process of extracting them from their pinecones is tedious and labor intensive.
It used to be that pine nuts sold in the U.S. came mostly from Italy (Roman soldiers carried them on their marches) but the Chinese are now growing and marketing them from their tree Pinus armandii. Unfortunately, these cause a temporary taste disturbance called “pine nut mouth” that makes everything you eat to have a bitter, metallic taste. The Italians need not worry about the competition.
There are about 18 species of pine nuts humans like but, unfortunately, none are here at Camp Salmen. We do, however, have pine nuts that squirrels like. At this time our Grey Squirrels are stoking up for the winter by taking down, dismantling and consuming pinecones. Apparently they are willing to go through the tedious process. To get at the small kernels of wholesome goodness the squirrel rips the scales out of the cone and uses his or her teeth to either dig it out of the cob or chew it off the end of the scale. They are not neat about it. You might notice all the dismantled and chewed up seed scales and “pine cobs” lying on the ground around here. These pine nuts are too small and not to human taste anyway, so the squirrels need not worry about competition from us.
The secrets of pine trees: Pines are gymnosperms, meaning their seeds are on cones hanging out in the open and not hidden inside of fruits or nuts. Furthermore, pinecones are either little boy cones or little girl cones. Male cones are smaller and softer than female cones and contain two sacs of pollen that are released into the air. The female cone, hanging from a structure called a peduncle, gets these pollen grains stuck between her scales and these reach the ovules that fertilize the egg that starts the embryo that grow in spiral cones and take about a year to mature until they turn brown and fall off the tree.
The secrets of fat: Pine nuts have enough calories or BTUs (British thermal units) from the fat in them to burn like little Hindenburgs in your metabolism. The reason they taste so good is fat stretches and smoothes out flavors and lets them linger on the palate. Think of pine nuts as miniature, well-marbled and exquisitely marinated U.S.D.A. Choice rib eye steaks, fresh from the grill.
As you shuffle through fluffy mounds of brown, crisp, dead leaves or have to tread on mats of black, rotting ones, think “nitrogen cycle.” Some of the nitrogen in the rotting leaf will go into the soil to be taken back up by the tree and incorporated into new leaves the next season. Nitrogen is one of those basic materials on the changeable surface of our planet that seems to always be in motion - natural processes and life itself swap it around from one form to another and without it, the world as we know it would not work
It’s the fifth most bountiful element in the universe, nearly eighty percent of the air we breathe and likely to turn up anywhere as a key component in diverse things having to do with life and dynamism - like tree leaves, proteins, explosives, tree trunks, rib-eye steaks, feathers, jet fuel, bat guano, aspirin, Super Glue, peas, snake venom and tears. Nitrogen gas can be drawn from the atmosphere and incorporated in the soil by a bolt of lightening or a bacteria, taken up and utilized by alfalfa grass, eaten and pooped out by a cow, washed out to sea, consumed by algae that fall to the bottom, get covered up, aged, heated and compressed to be turned into oil then mined, refined, burned and returned to the atmosphere once more as nitrogen gas. For a supposedly inert gas, it sure makes its business to be involved with virtually every aspect of the physical nature of life on Earth.
For something so fundamental, that’s been around on the planet for billions of years, it’s hard to imagine this gas as just a passing fad, but nitrogen appears to have become the hip, fashionable gas of the moment, au courant as they say. It has been used for decades as the driving force behind Irish Guinness Stout and now newer, American made craft beers are experimenting with using it for storing and propelling their product to thirsty consumers.
It has some prospects to attract the Green crowd because nitrogen gas can be used to goose-up the output of the microbes that produce bio-fuels. These bacteria can be made to more readily convert wood, instead of sugary, fertilizer-consuming corn into ethanol.
And nitrogen has now turned up in tires. An ad recently seen in a tire store extolled its desirability and availability, at a price, for inflating your car’s tires. The gas stays in the tire longer than regular air by not wiggling past all the rubber molecules to escape, like oxygen would, which is close to 20% of the atmosphere’s mundane combination. Nitrogen doesn’t expand and contract with temperature changes, maintaining steady inflation and prolonged improved gas mileage where the rubber meets the road.
Beside nitrogen, other things like water, carbon, rocks, phosphorous, climate, salt, the moon, sulphur and mercury exist within cycles. It’s what makes the world go ‘round.
Recent visitors to Camp Salmen may have detected unusually, soft, spongy ground under foot and looked down to find there was a long, crooked hump in the soil. This was a temporary tunnel left by an Eastern Mole (Scalopus aquaticus) after one of its hunting forays beneath the turf. These animals actually nest in more permanent tunnels deeper underground that provide wintertime insulation for the non-hibernating mammal. For your information: mole daddies are called boars, mole mamas are called sows and their children are called pups.
Ma and Pa are "King and Queen of the Underground" by being royal terrors in their subterranean realm, attacking and consuming about anything they happen to encounter: centipedes, worms, spiders, snails, insects and their larvae. The hyperkinetic little beasts dig and dig and eat their bodyweight every day. Earthworms are their favorite (all muscle and no bones) as are beetle grubs like the ones that become June Bugs. Just like rabbits and squirrels, moles are (and here's a favorite word) crepuscular - only active at dawn and dusk - though, they have been known to dart from the ground in the dead of night like a bad nightmare to grab a baby bird or mouse from its nest in the grass.
Because moles spend most of their lives in the dark they don't have much need to see and have only tiny, almost non-existent eyes. These are only good for letting them know if they have blundered above ground during daylight and have become vulnerable to predators, angry lawn owners or children. If they do get in a confrontation, their secret weapon is to exude a terrible stink that will hopefully disgust the attacker enough that he or she will go away. Plus, mole meat tastes really awful.
Moles are equipped with a huge pair of forepaws that shovel dirt away from in front of their highly sensitive noses used to determine just what it is they have encountered. The mole eats its victim quickly as it pushes the dirt aside with a broad, arcing motion not unlike a swimmer's breaststroke and uses their smaller hind legs to shove it behind them. Their strength is about forty times their bodyweight, allowing them to move through dirt surprisingly quickly.
Other anatomical adaptations moles have for living in the soil include the lack of external ears, otherwise they'd get pretty clogged up with dirt plus they don't need them because things are pretty quiet down there. Their exceedingly fine, short, soft fur (which is actually collected for use in coats) does not lay in any particular direction because the animal is always backing up and turning around and would otherwise have a hard time keeping up its appearances.
The excellent, fresh new weather makes it worthwhile to be outside, don’t you think? So, let’s get frisky and hike Camp Salmen’s trails. They’ve recently been widened and groomed and have never been in better shape. So grab a map in the Main Pavilion, cross the Parish Parkway crosswalk and enter our Main Trail system. It has the majority of the park’s three and a half miles of forested footpaths and boardwalks.
Just inside the entrance, the first trail on the right goes to the Gum Swamp Boardwalk. It has its own story, which is told in the sitting area on the boardwalk and in an information flier in the binder by the maps. Since it’s so close to the Main Pavilion it makes an easy goal for a quick hiking expedition.
If, instead, you stay to the left (and avoid entering the two or three short dead-ends on the way) you’ll end up about a mile away at the Pine Savannah Boardwalk at the other end of the park. This is not too arduous of a walk and probably takes an hour or so for a quick round trip. There are several optional and equally interesting side trails on the right that either loop back or end up out on the Parkway where there is a convenient path along the edge of the woods that goes back to the beginning. These are all described very well on the map, which also has the Park Ranger’s phone number. Bikes are allowed, but not motorized vehicles unless used by the handicapped.
If you meander through this network of trails and also visit all the trails on the other side of the Parkway you’ll probably use up most of an afternoon. Please be wary of our closing time, which is 7:00 in summer and 5:00 in winter. These trails offer a great opportunity to see nature up close and you never know what marvelous curiosities you’ll encounter. Don’t worry about getting lost and starving to death, you’ll no doubt find the Parkway for a quick, certain return to your car. Besides, Camp Salmen is surrounded by civilization and friendly neighbors who will probably give you some food and water and let you use their phone.
A little history: the ancient Longleaf Pine forest that used to cover St. Tammany Parish disappeared over a century ago from extensive logging. In 1901 Fritz Salmen acquired the land and began to use a railroad to remove its timber and clay. His old rail beds and clay pits remain. Since that time a cattle pasture, a Boy Scout camp, Pine Beetle infestations, hurricanes, tornadoes and the creation of a nature park also opened up parts of the tree canopy in these woods. After each incident there was an initial confusion of new vegetation sorting itself out through intense competition in the newly reintroduced sunlight. As these woods slowly recover, mature trees will create a solid, new shady canopy, understory plants will diminish and the view through the woods will become less cluttered. This is already happening toward the north end of the trail, just before you get to the Pine Savannah Boardwalk. Eventually, without new disturbances, the evolution of these woods will slow down and something like equilibrium will be achieved.
Green Grass Snake
There it was, draped amongst blades of tall, green grass, almost perfectly camouflaged by the matching spring colors. It was a lovely, petite Opheodrys aestivus — more commonly referred to as a small Green Grass snake or a Rough Green snake. So what would make it rough? It seemed smooth enough, but there is a distinction that a fastidious herpetologist would make; a subtle keel on the snake’s individual scales that helps differentiate it from the smaller, less common smooth grass snake.
This particular snake struck a perfect pose of simplicity, all tail and mouth, fine, distinctive scales and a Mona Lisa smile. It was almost too perfectly camouflaged for it was about to get whacked into several perfect pieces with a weed-whacker. Fortunately, it was spotted just in time and perhaps because it was still sluggish from hibernation or because this species of snake is a fairly mild-mannered type, this individual readily allowed itself to be picked up for relocation.
These beautiful jungle-green snakes love to climb around low-level vegetation and hunt. They may be pacifists around humans but they are absolute killers to any creature they can swallow — whole and alive. This includes insects, spiders, snails, centipedes, doodle bugs, even small frogs. Though they are a smallish snake, common across the southeastern U.S., specimens almost four feet long have been found. This indicates what might happen if they aren’t first consumed by a bird, a larger snake or a weed whacker.
As a predator, the Green Grass snake uses its coloration for good camouflage to let it move slowly and deliberately through the vegetation whilst on the hunt. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help prevent them from being victims of the pet trade. Thousands are easily enough snatched up from favorite hunting grounds and shipped to pet shops where, by virtue of their mild-mannered nature, they do their part to make an agreeable pet but are susceptible to rough treatment that can fatally harm them. Perhaps the only good result of these sad circumstances is, in a perversion of their beauty, they unintentionally reward the negligent pet owner by turning an unusually lovely turquoise blue when they commit this final act.
The Southern Magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) has a fondness for Camp Salmen Nature Park. They’re found from one end of the park to the other in all sizes and shapes — from scruffy runts trying to grow clear of the underbrush to the stately, full-grown specimens gracing the edges of our lawns or secreted in our shady woods.
The trees are loaded down with Southern “moonlight and magnolias” charm. They have an uncommon dark beauty with their year ‘round covering of big, glossy, dark green leaves and their striking, conspicuously large, spring time flowers of pure white petals. These blossoms glow in the nighttime air and fill it with a heady, romantic scent as they age gracefully into beautiful shades of brown. These traits attract both Southern Ladies and the insect pollinators, not that there are necessarily any other similarities.
Once the petals on these flowers drop, a most bizarre looking seedpod develops. They are as big as corncobs and dotted with sockets containing dozens of glossy, bright red seeds. These are a favorite for birds who pluck them out for an exotic dinner.
One of the reasons the plant’s reproductive structures might look weird is the tree is prehistoric, the oldest survivor of an early, and successful, experiment by Mother Nature to develop flowering plants (angiosperms). This was in the time of the dinosaurs and even predates the appearance of bees. The plant had to rely instead, on beetles to pollinate and still does. Since these ornery bugs, the dogs of the insect world, have a tendency to chew on everything, it is supposed the plant responded through evolution by bulking up with heavy petals and stiff, inedible leaves.
The trees drop minor quantities of these leaves early each season and because of this toughness, they don’t quickly decompose. Instead, they spend the summer bleaching in the sun and drifting across the lawns. From a distance they can fool the overly fastidious, zero-litter-tolerant park ranger, making them think the leaves are litter and erroneously going after what turns out being to be just another dried magnolia leaf.
Citizen Mark Holly recently stopped by Camp Salmen with a small bough from a Live Oak that had several odd, round galls growing on its twigs. They were a little larger than an acorn, spherical and smooth, and each had a tiny hole about the size of a pencil point. Mr. Holly was curious about them so we cut one open. We were gall-darned if it wasn’t full of tiny, black, bulbous-looking ants living in the chambers within; and the ants appeared to be looking after tiny white babies. It appeared that we had busted into someone’s scene of domestic tranquility.
Furthermore, Mr. Holly had observed wasps chewing on some of the leaves near the galls and were apparently getting drunk and falling to the ground. “What was that all about?” we wondered.
Galls are induced irritations to a tree’s tissues causing outgrowths that usually do no harm to the host. They’re like a plant’s version of a wart. They can be caused by fungi, bacteria, abrasion and insects, and happen to different parts of a plant – flowers, buds, roots, twigs and leaves.
Insects that make galls do so by introducing chemicals to a tree’s young, formative tissues in new leaves and green twigs. These can produce warty-looking bumps and blisters on leaves like what tiny psyllids do to Hackberry tree leaves or when gall-making wasps create tan, pom-pom like fluff on the underside of oak leaves. These structures allow the young of these species to hide away the live-long summer and leisurely suck up the sugary juices made by the plant’s photosynthesis.
On the internet Mr. Holly’s gall looked most like that of an English Oak Marble, though these are caused by wasps, not the ants we found. Dr. Bob Thomas of Loyola University, and headman of the Louisiana Master Naturalist Program, helped us clear up the confusion. He sent photographs of the ants to Raymond A. Mendez, an Entomologist in Arizona who tentatively identified the ants as possibly of the genus Crematogaster that specialize in keeping small colonies in tiny spaces like hollowed-out acorns and galls or Acorn Ants of the genus Temnothorax who do battle with others of their kind to determine who gets to hollow out acorns or galls and live in them. We’re preserving the ants in alcohol to send to Mr. Mendez for further scrutiny.
He also thinks the ant babies found in the gall may be someone else’s. They could have been the larva of the gall fly, or wasp who originally made the gall to be their home, intending to raise a family in it. They may have also been aphid babies, kidnapped from somewhere else and held, not for ransom but for a meal.
As for the drunken wasps, Mendez related this to Dr. Bob: “I am sure you have seen trees sweat in the tropics. It also happens all over (the world) and is usually caused by a virus that can produce alcoholic exude. Beetles, butterflies, flies and other critters love the stuff and just either hang out drunk or fall to the ground. Another possible reason, trees sprayed with insecticide to control mosquitoes, tent caterpillars or other critters just sits on the older leaves and kills non-target insects, it’s like friendly fire in warfare.”
All in all, it’s astonishing that either through a long evolutionary process of trial and error, or divine intervention, an insect happens to have a chemical in its bag of tricks to force another organism like a tree to yield it a home, in this case a pretty round sphere and one that would be contested between tiny bugs.
Camp Salmen is host to many distinguished plant species. Some are notable for their beauty, others appreciated for their uniqueness, and a few are respected for the huge amount of time their kind have been on the planet. Ferns do all these things and deserve our admiration.
Ferns emerged in history over 400 million years ago, about two thirds of the way back to the beginning of complex life forms on the planet. Their great heyday was the Carboniferous Period when they were the dominant plant on the land, some growing to the size of trees. They were so abundant and happened to decompose and fossilize in such a way as to be largely responsible for the world's thick coal seams - which are now being mined for energy and greenhouse gasses.
It's amazing how so much of the distant past remains with us here at Ole Camp Swampy. Along with the ferns, there are Magnolia trees, alligators, primitive gar fish from the Dinosaur Age and simple cyanobacterial slime puffs, the crude Nostoc Communes found on our wet, winter lawns that go half way back to the formation of the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. There is something noble about a fellow life form sticking it out through so many worldwide extinction events and all of the episodes of Laverne and Shirley.
The fern's beauty is self-evident; light green patches of them occur picturesquely in our shady woods. Their delicate fronds tell whether they are Royal ferns (Osmunda regalis) or Wood ferns (Thelypteris kunthii), the two most common species in the park. New stalks emerge and uncurl in spring in a dainty and eerie looking embryonic structure called a fiddlehead. (In a bizarre turn, fiddleheads are known to be gathered by nature-obsessed gourmands and eaten in salads.) Gardeners who prefer a natural look around their home plant ferns or decorate by putting them up in bushy, hanging flowerpots. Once established in the woods, depending on the species, they may freeze and brown in winter but will always return green and vibrant in the spring.
Because they were part of the early experiments of plant life, when Earth was only partially evolved to what it is now, ferns retain what seems like a strange reproductive strategy from a more primitive, almost alien time. Instead of flowers and seeds like more modern plants, ferns propagate with the use of tiny spores. These spores are held in tiny sori, small dark brown dots arrayed on the underside of the fronds. When the time is right, these spew forth as dust, just like in Star Trek, but without the weird “sproing” sound effect. This settles and tries to start female and male plants that then attempt to re-take over the world.
Pennywort, a.k.a Dollar weed (Hydrocotyle bonariensis) is native to Louisiana and grows all around the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico and a few other places on the planet. It favors some of the state’s moister conditions – around marshes and wetlands, on dunes by the sea, in ditches and even in some people’s yards. It probably got its name from being flat and round like a U.S. silver dollar and, as time goes on, their comparative value is getting closer and closer.
One of the plant’s survival techniques is the ability to accept anaerobic, or non-oxygenated conditions frequently presented when the ground in which the plant is living turns to semi-permanent muck. Wait a minute, you say, plants don’t use oxygen, they use carbon dioxide and spew out the world’s supply of oxygen for us animals to enjoy (who in turn spew out CO2 for the plants). Well, oxygen actually does figure into the complex biochemistry of the photosynthesis the plant uses to generate its own food from sunlight, but this plant has the ability to take it or leave it and finds other ways to get the trick done.
They are a simple, elegant little plant – one single, little round leaf. A rich, green carpet of them, looking up, glossily reflecting in the sun, has a pleasing texture and portrays nature’s lush beauty. Once a year they send up a stalk headed by a cluster of tiny white flowers but spend most the rest of the year just being flat, simple, green and round. There are hundreds of variations world-wide, in different shades of green, sizes and leaf shapes but they all follow the same basic design - a single leaf growing up from a rhizome in the ground and can have a surprisingly long stalk in order to give the leaf a good view of the sun.
There are some people who absolutely hate the plant with a purple passion and show it no respect. They become so fixated they pay good money to buy chemical poisons engineered to target these species and broadcast it on their lawns to try to wipe the plant out of their lives. While the age of this species on the planet is undetermined, it would be safe to say it was around long before and will be here long after Mr. Homeowner’s lawn goes through probate.
Understanding Crabgrass had never seemed important to me. It’s a term I'd heard thousands of times before but I didn't even know what looked like. All I knew it was something that vexes overly fastidious lawn owners. Little did I know how much it has personally impacted my life and how the plant is woven into the very fabric of the American Experience.'
Keeping Camp Salmen Nature Park tidy, oddly enough, involves trying not to let nature take over everywhere. Sometimes, instead of nature gracing an area with natural beauty, it just makes things look ratty. Our parking lot is one of those places.
It is shocking to learn those knotty grass clumps that are always trying to colonize the crushed white limestone and become candidates for a shot of herbicide are, indeed, the dreaded Digiteria sanguinali, also known as hairy crabgrass, hairy finger-grass, large crabgrass and crab finger grass. It is also distributed here and there on Camp Salmen’s lawns but is fairly well camouflaged and under control by the competition from all the other healthy, green grasses.
Crabgrass thrives in areas like barren, rocky parking lots, and can take advantage of a lawn’s weak, balding spots. It tends to spread by prolific seed production and is, therefore, difficult to control. The Latin name digiteria refers to its finger-like, horizontal grass blades and stalks that splay out from a central clump. The whole thing sitting by itself does sort of look like a crazy, abstract, green crab on hallucinogens.
Its appearance on this nation’s lawns, close-cropped to near death in the American fashion and starved by mower/vacuums, has launched a multi-billion dollar industry that hawks an array of chemical remedies to the aforementioned fastidious lawn owners. Even weirder is that this plant is a native to Germany and Poland and is traditionally grown there as a crop. The prodigious quantities of seeds it produces, referred to as Polish millet, are painstakingly harvested by hand and eaten. That Europeans have, at times, been driven to eating weeds is not surprising.
The grain is very nutritious to humans and the grass is rich in protein for animals. Immigrants from this part of the world apparently brought it along to America to have a favorite foodstuff from the old country and as forage for their livestock. They probably thought they were doing us all a favor by bringing something to the American Party, but the plan backfired and they ended up causing untold human misery and launched a vast chemical warfare industry.
The Clay Mines of Camp Salmen
Of Camp Salmen’s total of 130 acres, it is estimated some 20 acres are old clay pits left from when Fritz Salmen mined clay here in 1901- 1924 for his brick factory by the tracks in Olde Towne Slidell. He had acquired this, and many other parcels of land in the greater Slidell area with an eye toward harvesting their stands of virgin Longleaf Pine and the clay from underneath.
The depressions left by these mining operations afford variety to the topography and hydrology in today’s nature park and affect its plant life. As these areas hold water for part of the year, the presence of certain trees and plants are favored or diminished and certain ecologic zones like our Gum Swamp are maintained.
The clay deposits likely came from North America’s post-glacial period when rivers across the Southland flowed in greater volume, were more interconnected, and carried heaps of sediments from up north toward the southern sea. This likely caused the mighty Pearl River and Bayou Liberty to have not only sandy ridges deposited along their banks, like the park’s Camp Ridge, but also finer clays that settled in the still waters that ponded behind these ridges, where the old clay pits are found today.
The earliest French settlers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain who founded old Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty had taken advantage of the extensive clay deposits found on either side of the bayou to make bricks for local use and export to the growing capitol city on the south shore. Numerous building footings, chimneys, hearths, floors, patios, walks, walls and steps in today’s French Quarter were no doubt made of Bonfouca brick.
Brick making was merely a cottage industry for generations of residents up and down the bayou until Fritz Salmen came to town. Through his hard work, determination, genius and good timing, he created a modern brick-manufacturing juggernaut by the track, literally putting Slidell on the map and providing thousands of jobs and millions of bricks for the region.
Fritz’s principal tools for mining or, in the parlance of brick making, “winning” the clay, were the railroad track and the dragline. In these steam-driven times railroads went pretty much everywhere and temporary tracks were laid wherever heavy equipment was needed. Indeed, rail bed scars remain in the park where the ground was leveled and drained with ditches for railways to the pits. First the trains were used to remove the trees after logging then the draglines were bought in.
Fritz probably employed skilled prospectors who knew the lay of the land and the most likely spots to find these clay accumulations and probably used core sampling to get a more precise fix on their location.
The draglines of Fritz’s time looked like wooden cabooses with a smoke stack and housed the steam engine and machinery. A long crane stuck out toward the work and a large, horizontal bucket with teeth swung from a cable at the end. The bucket was dropped to the ground and drug toward the cab, filling with dirt then lifted and dumped either to the side or into rail cars waiting to take their precious load to Fritz’s factory. A modern term for this is strip mining, where an overburden is removed, in this case dirt and organic debris that had accumulated since the clay deposit was made, then the clay deposit itself was scraped out of the pit.
These procedures were duplicated numerous times in and around Slidell, and the pits from this era can be found today here and there in and outside of the city and up and down the Great Pearl River Valley.
Visitors to Camp Salmen can plainly see just how scenic Bayou Liberty is from our banks. There are many alluring glimpses through the overhanging vegetation and panoramic vistas of the bayou’s slow, swirling currents and deep quiet. However, there is even more to be seen for those who wish to launch a canoe. We have a special spot on our bank just off the main parking lot where people are encouraged to bring their paddle-craft to the water for cruising up or down this historic stream. They will see beautiful wetlands teeming with wildlife and lovely, historic homes and estates.
The launch has a gentle slope above and below the water line, making it fairly easy to manage a canoe launching. Like a lot of our bayou bank, it’s loaded with brick chunks leftover from Fritz Salmen’s brick-making enterprise as well as those who preceded him in doing this same thing at this location. In fact, there were piles of brickbats noted on the deed when Joseph Laurent bought the property for his Indian Trading Post (the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s. We have covered the launch area with sand to smooth it out.
Those launching their expeditions are encouraged to fill out one of the Float Plans offered in the Information Binder in the Main Pavilion and leave it face up on the dash of their car or under their windshield wiper in case their return is somehow delayed.
A paddle upstream on Bayou Liberty will fairly quickly bring one to the bridge over U.S. 190 and the wooden boardwalk of Carollo Station, currently the eastern end of the Tammany Trace bike path. Traveling much further upstream will take one on a jolly fifteen-mile long slog up a winding, narrowing stream full of various wooden obstacles. Most people prefer to travel downstream where it widens up considerably. Camp Salmen’s location has historically been considered the stream’s head of navigation and was wide enough for Laurent to turn around his 50 ft. schooner, the Marguerite.
As the crow flies, Lake Pontchartrain is only four miles away but somewhat longer to paddle downstream around the bayou’s twists and turns. The Scouts used to routinely paddle from here to camp the night on the lake’s starry shore.
The bayou flows through the heart of Bonfouca, a place occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans and settled by some of the first French in Louisiana. Their succeeding generations became both Creole and American. They farmed the land along the banks, raising crops and livestock, hunted its woods and marshes, and took advantage of the surrounding timber to make various products. They also built boats to trade their bounty of the land with the growing city across the lake and other coastal communities. There is a pride found on this bayou from people who know their long heritage. The new, upstart railroad town of Slidell next door should also be proud of having such a noble, older sister for a neighbor.
For a really adventurous paddle, go past the historic St. Genevieve Catholic Church where the bayou flows into open marsh and joins with its twin, Bayou Bonfouca from old downtown Slidell to flow to the lake and all the possibilities of exploration along the wilderness shore.
Down Bayou Liberty from Camp Salmen, the waterway joins with its twin Bayou Bonfouca from Old Town Slidell to flow together through the marshes to Lake Pontchartrain. On both banks of lower Bayou Liberty is an ancient rural community also called Bonfouca. It was settled long before the upstart rail worker’s camp next door blew up to tremendous proportions with the help of a modern transportation corridor, and became the beast that is Slidell today. Things remained much quieter in Bonfouca.
Researcher Codman Parkerson, in his compendium of Louisiana’s Native American place names, states that Bonfouca is Choctaw for river residence. Indeed, archaeology, history and oral tradition prove Native Americans have a great claim to their people living on these banks for thousands of years.
European occupancy on the bayou began shortly after New Orleans was founded 1722 and Frenchmen began to migrate to the north shore of the lake. The rascal Bartram Jaffery (who called himself la Liberte’ because he liked his freedom and for whom the bayou was named) and Pierre “Lacombe” Brou (who got the bayou next door named after himself) and others, left the constraints of the struggling new city to live on the lake’s north shore to enjoy the opportunities here. An agglomeration of dwellings and farms gradually arose along the banks of the bayou. Once the Spanish took over the colony they began to formally grant the lands in the area — never mind the natives.
Early on, without good roads, residents and their goods used area waterways almost exclusively for movement up and down the bayou and to brave Lake Pontchartrain to sail to other north shore rivers, Gulf Coast ports and the city across the lake. For over two centuries thousands of wooden boats were built and sailed in the Lake Trade, and Bonfouca had its share of this maritime tradition of building, repairing and navigating boats. In contrast, today’s use of the bayou is now relegated to only canoeists and pleasure boats.
Around 1800 the building that became Camp Salmen’s Salmen Lodge, was built by Joseph Laurent as a trading post for European and Native Americans. As it was located on a wide spot on the bayou where larger vessels could turn around, the location became something like the head on navigation at the northern end of the Bonfouca settlement.
A 1935 U.S. Geological Survey map places the central street grid of old Bonfouca squarely on the west bank of the bayou, just above St. Genevieve Church. This is also at the southern end of Thompson Rd., once the community's link to the now long-discontinued trans-St. Tammany railroad, the present Tammany Trace bicycle path.
After almost three centuries, many of the people living here can tell you family histories and relationships that go back lifetimes. There is a strong sense of community and they are justly proud of their French/Spanish/American/Creole/African/Indian heritage. Best be advised to properly satisfy their preference by pronouncing the name with emphasis on the last syllable –bon-foo-KAH!
Besides having a weird, long speckled body and eight vile-looking pointed legs that span four inches, the most noteworthy trait of Camp Salmen’s Banana Spider (Nephilaclavipes), also know as the Golden Orb Spider, is its ability to put its web at face level in the woods, especially on trails. If it manages to survive an unfortunate encounter with an unsuspecting human, it will no doubt carry fond memories for the rest of its year-long lifespan of the human flailing his or her arms around, cursing and doing a spastic, little impromptu dance in the woods. The wise Banana Spider would best build its next web a little higher off the ground.
It is this love of spinning durable webs with filaments much stronger than steel that gives this arachnid the family name Nephila, which is ancient Greek for the “love of spinning.” This they do in a spiral fashion with alternating sticky and non-sticky strands that give the web a patchwork appearance when viewed an angle. The web’s threads have a golden hue, thus the name Golden Orb Spider. It is thought this yellowish cast might help draw in insects that are automatically attracted to yellow flowers or may help camouflage the web in the woods. Humans have actually collected these webs and wove them into handsome, gold-colored silk garments. Asian fishermen have been known to apply the tough strands to bamboo frames or ball it up and toss it in the water to net small bait fish. What some people will do for a meal…
In typical spider fashion, the Golden Orb hangs out in the center of its web, feeling for vibrations from possible victims. If they detect one, they hustle over to subdue it with their venom and drag it back to the center to wrap and store the carcass away from rival spiders.
These spiders don’t seem to be inclined to bite people unless severely provoked, however, the bite is non-nuclear, that is, it won’t imbue humans with super- powers and only causes a little temporary redness and soreness. It will, however, be the death of the smaller males of its species that get too close outside of mating season as well as they many types of flying insects that fail to see the spider’s big webs spanning between trees in the woods.
Small birds and snakes have also been known to blunder into these webs. This may be an “either or” proposition for the spider. One theory supposes “guard strands” around the perimeter of the web collect leaves and such to act as warnings to keep these larger animals from inadvertently wrecking the web. However, if one does get stuck and starts to cry out in a small, squeaky voice, “Help me! Hellllp me!” Mr. Spider will amble over and, under his many-eyed gaze, administer as many venomous bites with its fangs as needed to subdue the beast and then try to make a meal of it.
This column has ranted before about all the invasive plant species from China that have firmly established themselves at Camp Salmen — Tallow trees, Wisteria, Christmasberry, Cherokee rose, Chinese privet, Mimosa trees and a whole slew of others. They have found a welcoming environment here because China happens to be at the same latitudes as the U.S.A. and has a similar climate. Some of these newcomers outcompete the natives for sunlight, habitat and nutrients and are very aggressive about taking over certain ecological niches. Once established, they are hard, if not impossible, to stop.
Plants and animals from China and other parts of the world have gotten here since planes, trains, automobiles and container ships were invented and put to extensive use. Sometimes the reasons are unintentional (fire ants where imported to Houston in a shipment of tires), sometimes on purpose (Tallow trees were promoted for colonial America’s candle making) and sometimes just insane, (Giant Apple Snails would make GREAT aquarium pets!). They get loose. They breed. They multiply.
These species are in the middle of upsetting the natural balance that was achieved by the many plant and animal communities that evolved together here over thousands, even millions of years to achieve North America’s native ecology. The upshot is that much of the vegetative landscape of our world will be quite different than that which our forebears had encountered only a relatively short time ago.
Well now, when it comes to invasive species, the good news is that North America is giving as good as it gets. North American species that are raising their own kind of heck in China include Muskrat, Canadian geese, crayfish, webworms, Loblolly pine mealy bugs, American rice water weevils, good old American cockroaches (a.k.a. Palmetto bugs), Wooly Apple aphids, Red-eared turtles, North American pinewood nematodes, Black spot fungus and those favorite sneeze-makers — ragweed and Goldenrod. Do the Chinese say, “ah-choo”?
And there’s more; invaders to the U.S. and China from other parts of the world include nutria from Argentina, Norwegian rats, pine scale from Japan, German cockroaches, grape root louse from France, Mexican tea weed plus alligator weed and water hyacinth from South American wetlands.
So you see, it’s a big, wide, wonderfully generous world making one big pot of gumbo as we jet, truck and ship the world’s DNA into one big, biosphere-encompassing mishmash – then let’s see what we end up with.
I have a love/hate relationship with Blackberry bushes (Rubus fruticosus). I love the generous quantities of sweet, succulent berries they offer up every summer; these make a wonderful impromptu snack on the trail or a hat-full for a pie. I hate the plant because they try to make you pay in blood for coming in contact with them.
What makes them this way (and helps them latch on to other plants) are their sharp, little thorns. The botanists say they don’t have “thorns” as such, but instead, have something they blithely call “prickles.” Right. That is not the term that occurs to me when I encounter them. These are their instruments for inflicting, pain on animals such as me who have to work around them or have the temerity to reach into their brambles to pick their tempting fruit. They retaliate by clawing at your flesh and even breaking off in it. This modus operandi is similar to the red-stalked, low laying Dewberry, a closely related species of Rubus.
The Blackberry’s roots are perennial, that is, they stay in the ground year in and year out. Every spring they sprout new stalks (called “canes”), leaves, flowers and berries. These canes arc out of the ground and hope to lean over on to something that will hold them up. Once established, they branch off and attempt to smother their neighbors, including their own kind. When they are new to a recently cleared area they can become obnoxious by taking over and creating an impenetrable briar patch.
I’ve been watching them colonize and establish a thicket at Camp Salmen along our bike path on the W-12 Canal. The brush was cleared to the ground three years ago in preparation of the path and blackberry plants popped up where there was plenty naked dirt and sunshine. In the second year their berries were small and tart. That didn’t stop someone from rifling the bushes and grabbing a mess of them before I could. It took a lot of sugar to make that pie palatable. This year the plants have bushed out even more with leaves that were much larger and darker. I first thought they might have been a different kind of plant with bigger and sweeter berries.
The berries aren’t really berries at all in botanical terms but are an “aggregate fruit” made of clusters of little, round “drupelets.” This week great, red clouds of tart, un-ripened red aggregate fruit are turning one by one into a bumper crop of fat, sweet, succulent blackberries. They may be ready to inflict pain but, if I’m careful, they’ll provide a lot of pleasure at the table.
Chinese Tallow Trees
The most invasive tree species at Camp Salmen is the Chinese Tallow (Triadica sebifera). At one time this tree was valued for the white waxy coating on its billions of seeds. This wax, or tallow, was used to make candles; a vitally important U.S. industry damaged by the advent of Edison’s light bulb. It just so happens this tree loves the lush growing environment of the U.S. South because it’s similar to the one back home. Since its introduction it has busied itself with taking over and becoming the bane of the region’s land managers.
Where the tree does serious harm is by aggressively taking over any openings it can find in native woodlands such those made by storms and land clearing. Its seeds are spread rapidly by floodwaters and bird poop (both of which we have plenty of in Louisiana). If a seedling senses daylight above, it quickly grows up tall and skinny to try to reach it. Once they establish themselves they continue to grow quickly to rob all the sunlight, moisture and nutrients to keep native trees at bay.
You almost have to grudgingly admire this tree’s resourcefulness, versatility and tenacity. It grows quickly in all sorts of soils and is difficult to kill. If you cut off its head, its roots will just sprout a few new suckers, and you’ll end up with a cluster of trees instead of the original one. Grievously wounded, smashed-up and fallen trees will sprout out and find a way to carry on.
There are counter-attacks — time consuming, girdling, grubbing the roots from the ground or careful, individual applications of certain herbicides. However, there is a promising new method of a species-specific aerial herbicide application in development for large tracts of land.
If you happen to personally own one of these trees you know how nasty it is to live with. It’s always sloughing off something – spindly twigs and branches, rotting flowers, shriveled leaves, seeds, sharp little seed pod husks, etc. They’re called Popcorn Trees because that’s what they look like when their seeds are ready to drop. They do, however, have the prettiest fall colors of any tree in this part of the country.
We’ve relentlessly hunted down Tallows in the park and have put an end to many a monster mother tree lurking in the woods and spewing out seed, but baby starts are always spontaneously popping out of fields and along trail edges. We still find stragglers here and there — clusters hiding in inaccessible parts of the park or hiding in plain view.
A small Tallow start.
It is an unfortunate fact that if the woods in this park were ever allowed to once again evolve on their own, these trees will probably flood back in. They are thick in the surrounding area, awaiting like the Huns at the gate, and the birds will happily cooperate by flying in and doing their thing all over the place and spreading the tree’s seeds.
In late summer and early fall Cattails make the scene on Parish Parkway and the edge of Bayou Liberty at Camp Salmen. They are a graceful wetland plant that adds nicely to the park’s fraternity of plants.
They have a distinctive dark brown sausage-shaped seedpod at their top. This is actually made of thousands of tightly packed flowers containing tiny, almost invisible seeds. As the “sausage” ripens at the end of the growing season it swells up and gradually disintegrates from the top down. As it does so it gives off scads of fluffy stuff, the flowers and seeds. This process does three things: 1.) it helps propagate the plant by wind distribution. 2.) it pleases nature lovers who like to watch nature “in action” and 3.) it provides a way for impatient and/or impertinent little boys to victimize the plant by thrashing them about to bust up the pods.
The drifting seeds would favor a new mudflat or a riverbank but these are rare around here so we are lucky to have them where the plants have placed themselves in our ditches.
The English call them bulrushes. American’s, who have a slightly different culture, have been known to call them “corn dog grass” because they remind them of a favorite basic foodstuff. They are also called “punks” because if the stalk and seedpod are soaked in oil or wax they can be lit to keep a burning ember handy for catching things afire. There are eleven species worldwide and ours is likely Typha latifolia or Common Cattail.
The seedpods have a number of uses. Louisiana swamp Muskrats and, oddly enough, Russian Cossacks from the Ukraine eat them. Birds line their nests with the fluff. Native Americans used it as kindling for starting fires, to line their moccasins and as a soft place to lay down their babes. The downy material can also be used to insulate clothing.
As rare and valuable as they are at Camp Salmen and as beautimous as they are in Louisiana’s wetlands, they are considered an obnoxious invader in other parts of the country, hogging sunlight, displacing other native plants and laying down dense root mats from the Great Lakes to the Everglades. We should be so lucky.
On Camp Salmen’s Bayou Liberty trail, just behind the Salmen Monument and Razza Flagpole, is a tall Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) with a huge, round burl right at face level. If you are unfamiliar with a burl, this one is a weird, lumpy, dish-shaped thing, about 20 inches in diameter. It would probably make someone a very interesting decorative bowl, which is often what woodworkers want to do with these things. Alas, the tree is in a publicly owned nature park, is in fine shape, being put to good use and is thus, unavailable.
For those who have not noticed them or don’t know much about burls, they are odd misshapen bark-covered lumps sticking out of an otherwise normal looking tree. Burls are the tree’s response to a localized disturbance in their bark like a mold infection (the most common cause), a virus, a bacterium, an insect infestation or perhaps a wound. They are more often found on a tree’s roots and usually don’t become evident until the tree happens to be uprooted. The most famous burls I’ve ever seen are on the oaks on the ancient LSU Indian Mounds up the hill from Tiger Stadium, but these are more than likely caused by the spirits who reside there.
When you cut into a burl, instead of the regular layered grain of alternating dark and light colored wood caused by the tree’s seasonal growth, the pattern is usually quite convoluted and interesting, with twists, swirls and ripples. Certain species of trees make more attractive burls than others; some respond to irritants in different ways, with different patterns. Of course, oaks, being tough as nails, polish up nicely and their burls are a fine addition to furniture and other small presentations of the woodworker’s art.
Though it’s strange to think that one organism’s malignancy can be another’s treasure, some covetous woodworkers are thoughtless enough to have actually cut burls off of living trees! This makes the tree susceptible to disease and early death. Worse yet, trees that are more valuable alive than dead have been cut down just so some greedy goon can get to a high-up burl. The problem has gotten so bad in California’s Redwood forest with people sneaking in to the woods to do these dastardly things, state foresters have to ask the public to insure their burl purchases are from legitimate sources.
There are a jillion different kinds of vines in the Camp Salmen woods. The smaller annual varieties, the ones that usually settle for smothering small bushes, are killed by winter and must start all over again and in spring. The big perennials, however, employ a different strategy. They crawl up the back of a chump tree to the heights and the life-giving sunlight. They maintain their advantage from year to year, steadily growing a woody trunk, losing only their leaves in winter and growing a new set the next season. Here are the back-stories of three of those vines.
Muscadine grape vines (Vitis rotundifolia) have been voted Camp Salmen’s best over-all vine. It has lovely, round, serrated leaves and can grow pendulous bunches of succulent, sweet, deep purple to black grapes. The vines are often easy to reach for humans and animals. Animals eat them right off the vine, humans do a little genius work and use them to make jelly, juice and wine. Over the centuries people have cultivated over 300 varieties of this plant, growing them on trellises. The vines are long and skinny and make little curly-cues to cling to other plants. I can attest that, in a pinch, these strands are plenty tough enough to be used as a suitable substitute for baling wire.
The Mustang grape vines (Vitis mustangensis) are remarkably massive and easy to spot, two to four inches thick at the ground with rough, deeply fissured, dark brown bark. They are usually rooted a short distance from the host tree and taper as they ascend stiffly into the forest canopy. Somewhere way up there they grow bunches of hard, green berries that ripen into a luscious-looking, plump, dark purple fruit. Sound enticing? Well — not so fast. Mustang grapes are bitter and highly acidic to the point they can irritate the skin. However, some people will try anything — with a lot of sugar, the pulp of the grape has been prepared and eaten as jelly and juice. It has also been used for dying wool.
The mighty Mustang Grape vine.
Rattan (Berchemia scandens) is similar in appearance and modus operandi to the Mustang Grape vine but without the grapes. It makes a fruit more properly called a berry and has a smooth, grey-green bark. It is not to be confused with the rattan cane from tropical Asia that is a type of palm. However, both rattans are known to be woven to make furniture.
One of Camp Salmen’s most popular features is the Swampwalk Boardwalk in the heart of the park, just off the main parking area.It descends into the bottomland fringing Bayou Liberty and adds an impressive wetland dimension to the park. Since Lake Pontchartrain is only about four miles away as the crow flies, the swamp is periodically flooded as lake and bayou rise and fall from high, steady winds. Wind from the east and south makes it go up and north and west winds make it go down. There are almost no lunar tides on this part of the Gulf coast.
Along the boardwalk is a riot of plant life that includes thick clusters of Dwarf Palmetto Palms (Sabal minor). They grow on the slightly elevated parts of the swamp floor, a characteristic that once helped guide both Native Americans and European travelers through the boggy Louisiana landscape. They also utilized the plant’s stiff fronds for weaving baskets and roofing their huts and cabins.
Bald Cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) also grow from the wet soil. They are a Louisiana icon with their hanging moss and little family of “knees” at their base. The exact purpose of these knees remains a mystery but theories suggest they may contribute to the trees stability in the mud and/or its absorption of atmospheric gasses.
At the end of the boardwalk is an observation platform overlooking the quiet bayou. Here are some interesting facts about the stream: Its 20 feet deep at this point and Camp Salmen is about a third of the way up the waterway’s fifteen-mile length. The bayou has been here quite some time; it probably emerged two million years ago when the ocean receded from the Gulf Coastal plain. Native Americans traveled up and down it for thousands of years and lived on its banks. The French began to settle on it in the early 1700s. In fact, they named it after one of their own, a rather roguish individual named Bertand Jaffre, also known by the defiant, individualistic nickname La Liberte’.
Some think worms are awful; they’re parasites, in gravesites and science fiction movies. Earthworms (of the scientific order Megadrilacea), however, get something of a pass. Maybe it’s because they are beneficial and are associated with productive gardening. They are harmless to us humans and simply toil away out of sight underground and are a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Maybe it’s because we subjugated them so mercilessly during our childhood fishing expeditions and we’re feeling guilty.
It was not always this way because, believe it or not, most earthworms are not from here but came from England (and other parts of Europe). It seems that North America’s original earthworm population was largely wiped out by Ice Age freezes. Our nation’s forefathers must have either been extremely environmentally conscious and forward thinking to purposely re-introduce the animal to U.S. soil or they just had the dumb luck to cross the Atlantic with the worms hidden in their potted plants and ship’s ballast. There are 1,600 species worldwide and Ailoscolecidae is one of the most popular in Louisiana, commercially raised for fishermen or turned loose in gardens. Anyway, once they were here it was recognized the great benefit of having one’s soil pass repeatedly through their digestive systems.
So why do they swallow dirt? Besides trying to glean nutrients from decaying roots and leaves, the occasional nematode, protozoan, rotifer, bacteria or fungi are considered a treat (especially when they wiggle). Animal manures and other animal remains are considered delicacies.
Earthworms don’t have eyes and, therefore, don’t know if it is dark outside or light but they do love it wet. If it gets too dry they try to burrow more deeply, up to six feet. After a rain, in dew or heavy humidity they find it comfortable to slither around on the surface but they do so at their peril. There is always the possibility that a hungry red, red Robin will come around bob, bob, bob’n along...
Also, earthworms are not known for their powers of reasoning and sometimes miscalculate to blunder onto a sidewalk. If they get caught on one on these concrete deserts in the sun they can meet their end by shriveling up and dying on the spot and are of no use to anyone.
“Bird brain” is a slur humans have used against avian species for centuries. The thinking must be something like: “How can any creature that flits and jerks around, eats bugs and seeds and mindlessly warbles at nothing but the sky have much of anything going on upstairs?” Obviously these misinformed people haven’t met the corvids - crows, ravens and magpies or, for that matter, the parrots. These birds are at the top end of the range of bird intelligence; they have a high “encephalization quotient,” that is, a low body to brain size ratio plus relatively high-output grey matter. This allows them to display levels of intelligence approaching that of the apes. Modern science has demonstrated how, like the apes, they possess an ability to use language, have self-awareness (can you say “pretty bird”?) and problem solving skills that include tool making. Most anyone who has been around parrots (and some of the corvids) knows their talent for mimicry and of having long memories. It seems the only things holding them back from World Domination are having only wings instead of hands, stick-like legs and stiff, clumsy beaks.
Camp Salmen’s main corvid is the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The smaller Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) can also be found in coastal Louisiana. We also have other medium-size black colored birds like Grackles and Blackbirds whose appearance may confuse the public, however, it the responsibility of all intelligent, mature adults to inform themselves of the differences between these species in order to properly identify them.
While our quiet public park environment offers few of the challenges needed to bring out their stellar levels of intelligence, crows have a leg up on the other creatures in the park that must hustle to survive day-to-day. They’re smart enough to eat almost anything they find – no finicky, over rationalizations about diet here. Crows will aggravate humans by going after food scraps in trashcans and landfills. No small creature is safe from them: invertebrates of all types, frogs, mice, stranded fish, carrion, eggs and small birds are snatched up in their black beaks. Birding professionals don’t call a flock of crows a “murder” for nothing. They also eat seeds, nuts, acorns and various grains including crops like corn and wheat. These last items can get them into trouble with the shooting crowd. Besides a fall and winter crow season, Louisiana law allows them to be shot whenever they “depredate upon ornamentals or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers as to cause a health hazard.” So watch out Mr. Crow, don’t get too smart for your own good.
Meet the Corvids!
It is as if some children had never seen a rock before - until they step out of the family car onto Camp Salmen’s white, crushed limestone parking lot. Small boys especially, immediately stride forward and reach down like Columbus discovering America to grab a fist-full to fling as far as they can; in no particular direction, just away. Later, when they discover Bayou Liberty, they try to fill it up with rocks, probably because it does the favor of making a nice splash. Do these kids have some sort of purpose in mind? Are they making some kind of a statement, or what?
Every spring a couple of South American plants with bright orange blossoms show off on the banks of Bayou Liberty next to Camp Salmen’s amphitheater. One is a Cockspur Coral Tree (Erythrina crista-galli). Ours is a small representative of a popular Latin American ornamental that reaches out over the bayou and gets its name from the shape and color of its pretty flowers.
What was that brief pollen storm that just hit the Gulf Coast all about? It was the commencement of the annual reproductive cycle of a certain member of the local plant community - the Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Their small, feathery, strand-like flowers, called “catkins,” were accumulating loads of pollen and the sudden winds that ushered in April caused them to release and spew yellow-green clouds of the stuff all over the landscape. And that’s just the Live Oaks; a bunch of other plants kick off the summer growing season by making like a high school biology lesson – flowers make pollen for pistils to make seeds and any attendant fruits, nuts and vegetables. These are the products of this annual binge and this behavior goes on throughout the growing season as different plants take their turn.
The “pollen du jour" (pollen of the day) forms up on the lazy currents of Bayou Liberty.
A common climbing vine at Camp Salmen is the Peppervine (Amelopsis arborea). They had so burdened the trees and brush in one part of the park that once we cleared them, their dead dangled from the rescued tree limbs like cut ropes and were piled on the ground like thick heaps of cables. Some encourage this plant because they’re pretty but this same prodigious growth in gardens and other kept areas and their striving to take over is a gardener’s chief complaint against them.
Slime Puff Planet
During the recent prolonged rains at Camp Salmen, repulsive, dark green slime puffs sprouted on parts of the wet ground. One might have thought they were some kind of algae but it turns out they have an unusual name — Nostoc communes — and are actually a variety of cyanobacteria closely related to the oldest forms of life on Earth.
It’s June, and sure enough, June Bugs are making their appearance. These nondescript one-inch brown scarab beetles of the genus Phyllophaga (Greek for "leaf eater") spend most of their lives underground as small white grubs gnawing on the roots of grasses and trees. Those of us that do a lot of shovel work often see them and might not make the connection between grub and bug.
Japanese Climbing Fern
When it comes to plants, Camp Salmen can be a delight of color and texture. Yellow-green Wisteria graced with lavender blossoms cascade from the trees; huge, saucer-shaped Tung leaves dapple the forest understory; Brazil Pepper patterns the forest floor, their bright red berries peering from underneath; delicate Mimosa Tree fronds frame the sky, and bright green Japanese Climbing Fern daintily climbs on top of everything to try to spread over all and smother it to death. Yes, all these plants are aggressive invasive species; they’re not from here and are hell-bent on taking over.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
- Joyce Kilmer
The Hackberry (Celtis laevigata) is what you’d call a swamp tree’s swamp tree – rough and wicked-mean; covered with warty bark and cruel, wiry twigs and branches. The whole tree is so tough it could be used to whip the devil. Its nasty disposition makes its leaf litter so loaded with allelopathic toxins nothing will grow in its shadow.
Good Gras / Bad Grass
The good. The stalks of Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum) at Camp Salmen be groovin’ and are waving the peace sign at the sun; their twin-v seed heads fly high over the lawn and are decorated with black fuzz. If you use a magnifying glass you'll see this fuzz is actually many tiny, black flowers and these are lined with minute white and yellow pin-stripes. Far out!
Down in Camp Salmen’s Bayou Liberty swamp are some mighty fine specimens of Louisiana’s legendary Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). The tree gets its odd name from the small bald spots on top of their “knees” sprouting from the ground around them. Some botanists have called these knees “pneumatophores” and imagine they somehow suck air into the tree’s submerged roots. Other botanists say, “Pshaw, nothing could be further from the truth.” They’ve used sensitive oxygen detection equipment to determine no such consumption occurs. They also point out that cutting off all of a tree’s knees does not appear to affect its health.
Boys and Sticks
In terms of interesting behavior, sheer numbers and sightings, Humans (Homo sapiens) rank right up there with Camp Salmen’s wildlife. These closely observed creatures have many interesting traits, especially the taking up of sticks, notably by the young males of the species but often times the older ones do this as well.
Snakes are so weird! These legless creatures can move fast, even up a tree, using only the undulations and wiggles of their bellies. Without hands or utensils, they have to be selective and crafty about what they sneak up on and eat. They’re lucky, the world seems to understand their handicap and accommodates them with a cornucopia of tasty things of just the right size.
Bayou Liberty Whirlpool
Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, when Joseph Laurent built his trading post on the high bank of Bayou Liberty — the building now known as the Salmen Lodge — he probably first consulted with the locals as to whether the location would flood. The Indians had lived on the bayou for thousands of years and the French for almost a century so they all probably assured him it was a good spot. Indeed, the monster floodwaters of Hurricanes Katrina and Issac didn’t even come close to the building.
During the recent heavy rains several “fire ant rafts” were found floating in flooded areas at Camp Salmen. These were apparently the result of too many mindlessly obedient Red ants (Solenopsis invica) suffering from the bad decision-making of their ant queens who chose poor locations to establish colonies. It seems an individual ant could sometimes use a little skepticism to keep themselves out of this kind of trouble but, unfortunately, they’re “social insects” and just can’t help themselves.
The Frogs of Winter
Except for a little recent brush clearing in one corner, the old, shallow clay pit between Camp Salmen’s main parking lot and the park’s office building is hidden behind a wall of vegetation. The sounds that come from it — the remarkable roar of a frog chorus after a long, hot, humid rainy day in the summer —tells it’s prime frog habitat. During dry spells when one can penetrate the brush barrier and walk through the pit one sees why; it’s a tangle of shrubbery, trees, standing water, muck and wetland plants.
You would think the pit would be silent in the middle of winter but at least two kinds of frogs have a greater tolerance for the cold than most of their cousin frogs. They like to mate at any time of year and, thus, keep up their nocturnal racket to attract the opposite sex.
One is the Cajun Chorus Frog (Pseudacris fouquettei). Most people know them from the wall of sound they make from area ditches and wetlands, a sound that constantly goes “cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep.” Because they are smallish (one inch), grey/brown and stay hidden under the leaves, they can confound the careful observer in a most fraudulent and deceptive manner by seeming to be invisible in spite of all the noise they make.
The other frog has a creepy sound that if you didn’t know what was making it, would raise the hair on the back of your neck — a sound that combines a noise like a squeaky pair of rubber shoes or from rubbing an inflated balloon with the growling chatter of demons from the netherworld. Its source is the Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus). These are a handsome, distinctive-looking frog; a frog’s frog. They can grow up to about five inches long, though most are about three inches long. They’re sleek looking, with pointy snouts and a couple of angular, racy ridges on their back. Their chief distinction is the large leopard-like spots scattered over their smooth, moist, froggy bodies.
Both frogs like it wet, are quite happy with conditions in our pit and await all their other frog cousins to liven-up and join them in the summertime chorus. And don’t forget, like the TV commercial points out and in spite of evidence to the contrary, don’t confuse “frog” with “fraud.”
One of the loveliest sounds you hear out in the empty, expansive marshes down Bayou Liberty is the sweet, trilling song of the Redwing Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). While the invisible wind rustles the tall grass, their song fills the air from every direction. As far as the eye can see many of these birds are flitting about or perching high as they can to mind their territory and make the marsh both their home and hunting ground. I was surprised and pleased to hear their welcome music and see masses of them this week at Camp Salmen. They were in the company of their silent, wall-eyed partners, the bobbing red-breasted Robins. Both were feeding in the trees and on the lawns.
It may be the dead of winter, on a cold, grey day the world does indeed appear dull and dead, but encouraging signs of the upcoming spring are everywhere — Red Maple blossoms, sprouting green irises and waves of the earliest migratory birds chatter their way through the neighborhood. A certain number of Redwings stay right here year ‘round, as in the aforementioned marsh, but a certain number of them yo-yo annually up and down the continent, feeding on seed left over from the last fall and following what the new warmth of the season provides as they make their way back to their northern summer homes.
The glossy black Redwing males are easy to recognize because of the flashing diagonal red and yellow bars on their shoulders, and of course, their call. The mostly monogamous females in their company are slightly smaller and a brownish black with white streaks on their breast.
These birds are of the passerine type, the most popular bird design on the planet, accounting for over half of all the bird species. They are laid out like your standard bird. Although they all don’t sing, they are generally known as the songbirds. Down their throat is a piece of equipment called a syrinx, the avian equivalent of vocal cords, the manipulation of which allows them to make a wide variety of beautiful (think whippoorwills) and not so beautiful sounds (think crows).
They are also known for being good at perching, having three toes fore and one toe aft below each skinny leg, plus they possess a good sense of balance.
Goldfish Bayou creeps out of the Camp Salmen woods, passes under Parish Parkway and our wooden bike path bridge on its way to Bayou Liberty. Recent brush clearing has revealed more of it in the busy Camp Ridge part of the park.
The stream is typical of the web of natural channels that drain both rainwater and oozing groundwater from the coastal plain. In developed urban areas like Slidell, these streams are usually either replaced or modified by drainage ditches, but the Goldfish meanders through the woods in a mostly natural state. As such, it has to do a lot of dodging and ducking around both dead and living trees.
The Goldfish is what is known as an intermittent stream. Though it carries water most of the year, only the wider, deeper part at its end holds water year round. Standing water disappears from the upper parts of the channel during summertime dry spells.
Goldfish has an unusual tributary. While the bayou minds its own business as it winds through the woods north of the park’s main trail, just south of the trail is the shallow ex-clay pit that comprises the park’s Gum Swamp. Water held here does not flow to the bayou by way of a channel but, instead, flows from the pit over ground to the Goldfish as sheet flow. You can see the brown stains and muddiness from this periodic phenomenon on the path through the field at the entrance of the main trail.
With the coming and going of the water in Goldfish over the course of the year, there is an ebb and flow of life in the bayou. Small fish and the micro-critters they feed on invade the stream as long as there is enough water to wet their gills and then retreat downstream as the stream dries. So too for predators like snakes and birds who hunt for them. An otter was once spotted as he prospected up the bayou looking for what it had to offer in the way of food.
In places where the bayou backs up and spreads out a bit one can find open areas that hold water long enough to be clear of undergrowth. These are among the prettiest spots in the park and one such place can be found on the trail north of the nearby Salmen Lodge. It is interesting to speculate on just how the bayou may have been used by the people who occupied the building in its long history as a home and trading post.
So why is it called Goldfish Bayou? Goldfish are not naturally found at all in Louisiana but I bet it had something to do with the boys who were once Scouts here.
Gallberry (Ilex glabra) is the Rodney Dangerfield of Camp Salmen’s plants. It’s a fairly nondescript, knee-high, shrub that occurs everywhere in Camp Salmen’s forest — especially along trails we’ve cut through the woods. Because it thinks so much of itself, it likes to be among the first plants to populate freshly cleared land and flourishes in both shade and sunshine. Plus it thinks it’s pretty funny.
For example, after trees were thinned out from the Pine Savannah Boardwalk area and the ground began to heal up from the heavy equipment, Gallberry just barged right in and took over. What was supposed to become a pine savannah, a mixture of grasses and a variety of shrubs between widely spaced trees to mimic the native Longleaf pine woodland of St. Tammany’s Parish, ended up looking more like a Gallberry plantation.
Somehow, after a judicious herbicide application, the seed from native grasses must have sensed it was they who were supposed to populate this spot and the following year we got the look we were seeking. In fact, the resulting botanical assemblage was pretty handsome, true to form, and stuck it out to make annual reappearances. See what I mean about the Gallberry? No respect, no respect at all.
Despite being such a sad sack, Gallberry plants do have their benefits. For example, bees use their pollen to make excellent honey, their copious berries feed wildlife, and horticulturalists plant them and trim them up to make pretty hedges.
Next, what is envisioned for our simulated savannah is a good replacement for the frequent fires that historically visited southern Longleaf pine forests. These low intensity events would flash through the woods and actually rejuvenate the area. Since this method would be impractical inside of a wooden boardwalk (and may be an unwise move in a suburban environment), mowing is considered the next best thing. As insane as it may seem to destroy a plant installation that took so much trouble to produce, if this isn’t done plant succession will eventually replace the savannah and it will eventually become dominated by shade producing trees and thus, lose the effect. Besides, mechanical reduction is efficient and oxidization is oxidization, whether by a quick fire or by the slow metabolism of decomposing bacteria. In any case, look forward to watching how the savannah recovers this growing season and watch out that Mr. “Gallberryfield” doesn’t try to horn in again.
After a long, gnawing, winter made much of the vegetation at Camp Salmen dead and brown, spring is creeping in with a scattering of new color that vividly contrasts against the dull background. Red Swamp Maple seeds, bright green willow, iris, clover and a plentitude of white flowers on American Plum, Mexican Plum, Parsley Hawthorn, Mayhaw, Common Pear and Dogwood trees, polka dot the landscape and their colors easily catch the eye.
In contrast, you’ll note the dead leaves on Red Oak and American Beech trees hang fast until well into spring until it is they that stand out against the bright spring backdrop. These trees will belatedly get with the program and assume their green, summertime, chlorophyll-filled foliage.
Colorful birds flit hither and yon and rival the plants for our attention. The vivid cerulean blue of the Blue Bird with a complimentary orange blaze on its chest, the bright red of the chirpy Cardinals and a multitude of returning migratory birds add action to the rainbow effect. Now, why exactly is all this glory?
Well, besides the obvious spiritual explanation, the great scientific theory, one which, by the way, defies the use of the scientific method for accurate reproduction, is that a planetesimal meandering about our solar system during its formative mosh pit years whacked the Earth upside the head and left it perpetually addled and spinning with a twenty-three degree wobble. Simple as that, whatever became in the way of life here has had to deal with this — but aren’t the results wonderful?
From every perspective on the surface of the globe this wobbling seems to make the sun itself change its daily path during the course of the year. At this time here on the northern half of the planet the sun appears to arc higher and higher over the horizon with each longer and longer day. Someone living on the southern half of the planet, at the same distance between the equator and the poles, is experiencing the exact opposite thing. Here in the U.S., federal intervention actually makes our sunsets delay an hour as daylight savings time takes effect this weekend.
Another neat aspect of the change of the seasons is the lag effect between the celestial mechanics of our wobbling, revolving planet and the change in surface temperatures. We divide the year into quarters within this geometry– two equal equinoxes and two extreme solstices – but it takes a while for things to warm up or cool down after each of these waypoints has passed. The resulting weather can be something to look forward to. May we always have long and glorious springs and autumns.
Among the plants at Camp Salmen that are not part of the original forest but instead, showed up during the last century as an invasive species from the Orient, is the Christmasberry (Coral ardisia). It is so named because of its clusters of vivid, red berries. It’s also known as Australian holly, coralberry, spiceberry, hen's-eyes and scratchthroat. This last name may have something to do with its identification as toxic to livestock and humans, though native birds and raccoons are known to happily consume (and spread) the berries. The second to last name must be about a chicken I hope I never meet in a dark ally.
The plant is a low, evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves that might make one think vaguely of a mini-magnolia. Each year small, whitish flowers yield clusters of berries just under its crown of leaves. These berries are its chief distinction as they stay on the plant for most of the year. Specimens in our woods occur in small bunches and typically don’t get much taller than a couple of feet, though they can get up to six feet tall. You can see the greatest concentration where they carpet the wooded slope between Mary’s Grotto and Goldfish Bayou.
The plant is native to Japan and was introduced to Florida as an ornamental around 1905 by an overly helpful horticulture industry. It wasn’t spotted as an escapee until 1982. Now it’s spread across the Gulf South.
The dense, low canopy it creates shades out most of the sunlight from the lower understory plants that belong here. Its year-long production of seeds creates an overwhelming secondary generation of seedlings waiting just underneath.
Though you can temporarily wipe out stands of this plant, you can’t ultimately get rid of them. Its prolific seed production insures that there will be plenty more replacements. They are known to regenerate after fire and cutting. The waxy coating on its leaves sheds herbicides. Yanking them out of the ground by hand works but is impossible over a large area. Dispersal of the seed by animals is an ongoing fact of life.
On one hand, such plants as the Chritmasberry ruin the diversity of the native plant community, potentially making the Earth a planet of weeds, susceptible to the relentless onslaught of the aggressive gutter punks of the plant and animal kingdom. On the other hand, like it or not, these plants are here to stay. How would you like a decorative Christmasberry for your next Holiday Season?
The plant’s bright red berries, just in time for cheerful, Holiday decorating. Note the profusion of small starts underneath, ready to shade the sun from other, possibly more deserving ground cover.
It’s springtime at Camp Salmen Nature Park in Slidell, and birds
are making a great noise everywhere in the park to either call attention to themselves (for a mate) or expressing joy that winter is almost over. During the course of the year thousands of these winged beasts fly in and out of our 130 wooded acres or make the park their permanent home. Professional and amateur birders visit often and have inventoried the many species of birds sighted here in the checklist below. This is also a handout in our Main Pavilion and archived in the Nature Notes section of our web site. We are calling on all bird watching enthusiasts to use the handout to report any new species they might see so we can add them to the list.
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Black Vulture
- Turkey Vulture
- Wood Duck
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Laughing Gull
- Ring-billed Gull
- Mourning Dove
- Yellow-billed Cuckoo
- Barred Owl
- Chimney Swift
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Belted Kingfisher
- Red-headed Woodpecker
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Downy Woodpecker
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Northern Flicker
- Pileated Woodpecker
- Eastern Phoebe
- Great Crested Flycatcher
- White-eyed Vireo
- Yellow-throated Vireo
- Blue-headed Vireo
- Red-eyed Vireo
- Blue Jay
- American Crow
- Fish Crow
- Tree Swallow
- Carolina Chickadee
- Tufted Titmouse
- Brown-headed Nuthatch
- Carolina Wren
- House Wren
- Ruby-crowned Kinglet
- Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
- Eastern Bluebird
- American Robin
- Gray Catbird
- Brown Thrasher
- Cedar Waxwing
- Orange-crowned Warbler
- N. Parula
- Yellow-rumped Warbler
- Pine Warbler
- Kentucky Warbler
- Common Yellowthroat
- Hooded Warbler
- Northern Cardinal
- Summer Tanager
- Eastern Towhee
- Field Sparrow
- Savannah Sparrow
- Swamp Sparrow
- Song Sparrow
- White-throated Sparrow
- Indigo Bunting
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Common Grackle
- Brown-headed Cowbird
- American Goldfinch
In a short period of time Slidell expanded from the quaint old brick downtown that originated down by the railroad tracks, into a pretty good-sized metropolis; ranked twelfth in Louisiana’s roster of cities. However, only a third of the people who live in the Greater Slidell Area actually live inside the smaller municipal boundary, the rest are spread out in every direction across the surrounding hundred square miles.
Camp Salmen was once an isolated destination way outside of town. It was at the end of a long, dusty drive. The Scouts had to travel through piney woods and across marshes to get here from neighboring communities. Now, since we’ve slicked-up the road system a bit and built suburbia all around this patch of woods, it’s become an urban park.
All is not lost, especially for city-addled citizens and the remaining wildlife, for this refuge, along with the other large, wooded properties in the riparian zone on Bayou Liberty, are part of a wildlife corridor linking the woods to the north with the woods and marshes to the south and west. Take a look at a Google Map satellite view and you’ll see its greener along the bayou (you can also look up riparian zone while you’re at it).
Some of the animals that troop through the park are super-secretive creatures that absolutely HATE to be around humans and avoid them at all costs: deer, coyotes and bobcats for instance. They travel up and down the corridor, furtively staying hidden in the brush and move about only under cover of darkness. However, some of them are not above slinking up to the edges of civilization to look for something to eat like a chicken or something from the garden.
Other animals like squirrels, rabbits and raccoons are exhibitionists in comparison. They don’t mind people at all, as long as they keep their distance. These wily creatures know they can scamper up a tree or bolt into the bush or growl ferociously and bare their teeth to avoid any real life or death confrontation with humans; it’s the aforementioned predators they need to worry about. Still, we’re all just one big, happy family at the park so come visit us.
Wasps & Armadillo
A recent surprise find at Camp Salmen Nature Park was an underground nest of Southern Yellow Jackets (Vespula squamosa), a type of wasp also commonly called a ground hornet. They are known to deal painful stings to those who may blunder too close to their nests.
The entrance to the nest was discovered inside a small depression camouflaged by grass and leaf litter. I returned the next day prepared to do battle, armed with a can of wasp spray. To my surprise the underground nest had turned into a neatly excavated hole, it looked like it was dug out with a shovel. Then I saw many shreds of honeycombed paper nest scattered on the ground around it.
My best guess is an alert, insectivorous Nine Banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) beat me to the nest. Good for him (or her) for he/she enjoyed a feast of tender, juicy wasp larva and probably did not mind the storm of furious wasps ineffectively hammering away at his/her armor. Good for me because I got to avoid having to deal with the thing.
I examined the hole. It was large, about the volume of a volleyball — or an armadillo. In fact, the walls were smooth from the beast doing its work. There wasn’t much dirt heaped around the hole because it had probably been mostly full of the paper nest. I theorize the nest had been started in a void-space under a tree root and the wasps slowly took away more dirt as they expanded it. The armadillo had burrowed right into it, pulling out hunks of nest, consuming the larva on the ground outside then diving back in to excavate more.
The wasps were still drifting in and out of the empty hole in a business-as-usual fashion. The armadillo hadn’t killed any of them, only their young. Now they were just a disappointed and disconnected swarm. I wondered if they were going to try to rebuild the nest here or elsewhere but decided to take no chances and hosed the hole with the spray; the bottom was littered with dead wasps later. Good riddance to them and hooray for our brave and helpful little Mexican friend, the Armadillo.
The worst part of winter is yet to come. The herbaceous plants (those without woody stems) are busy withering away, yet a brand new, plump, juicy Spiny Thistle (Cirisium horridulum) has popped up out of the ground by Camp Salmen’s mailbox. So how come?
Firstly, winter and early spring are simply their season. There is not much in the way of competition, so they take full advantage of the situation. They also possess a short list of winterizing traits - an antifreeze solution of salts, sugars and other elements in their juices, toughened cell walls, compact leaves and proximity to the warm earth.
These plants have an unusual pattern of growth. They start out as a flat stack of spiky leaves arranged in concentric rings on the ground. This stage is spectacular in itself, some span over a foot across. It’s what they do next that is really strange. When the moment is right, the main stalk in the center grows upward, taking each layer of leaf-rings from the stack with it, one at a time, from the center out, until the complete plant stands on its tall, succulent stalk with pinkish flowers on top. The flowers are favorite forage for honeybees and other insects.
A young thistle plant before going vertical.
Once winter releases its death grip, the plant’s population really takes off. They especially like open lots and pastureland, where their numbers can be a bane to farmers and ranchers. The imposing, spiked leaves guard the tempting stalks, and grazing animals with tender mouths can get injured (the plant isn’t called horridulum for nothing). However, livestock scientists have actually developed a training program for cattle (who have tough enough mouths to ingest the weed) that gets them to include thistles in their grazing diet.
A thistle about half way through its growth spurt.
The plant’s stalks are also the desire of culinarily adventurous humans. Thistles are said to taste like celery but one had better be wearing leather gloves if one wants to grab these things to jerk them out of the ground and try peeling away the leaves.
Thistles are a national symbol in Scotland and show up on their flags, crests and heraldry. The plants prickly pugnacity and tenaciousness reflects the national character — “Mess with me and you’ll likely come away hurt.”
A mature thistle forest.
There is an explosion of Ladies Hatpin along our Pine Savannah boardwalk and trail. It’s a curious looking wetland plant with a cute little compact round white flower on top of splayed clumps of skinny, two foot tall stalks, giving it its name (though actual ladies hatpins are now long past being in vogue).
The very earliest colors of fall are staring to show up and are easy to pick out of the background of summer green. The Black Gum tree (gums are known to be among the first trees to loose their leaves in fall) are turning yellow with irregular red splotches. The effect with the backlit sun is quite remarkable. The red is the color of blood and makes the tree look like it was witness to a massacre. Some of the malignant poison ivy is also beginning to show its fall yellows and reds.
Rabbits are everywhere in the mornings and evenings (don’t forget, they’re “crepuscular” meaning the are only active at the beginning and end of each day) and seem oblivious as they eat and eat and eat. One let me watch it from about fifteen feet away. However, they will quickly vamoose if they think you’re too close. Coyotes are already in the park, leaving furry turds on our asphalt at night, as they seem to like doing.
Creeping ground vines like the Morning Glory are slowly taking over parts of ditches, meadows and the edge of the woods. There will be more as fall progresses and they attempt to smother everything else at the end of the growing season.
Tight little schools of mullet are feeding on the surface of Bayou Liberty, slowly flowing along together as they feed on pollen and whatever the “scum do jour” is floating on the surface.
There are still a few redheaded woodpeckers darting around the trees. I hear they’re scheduled to pull out and migrate to Texas for the winter. I look forward to seeing their return and with their vivid colors and antics next spring.
Checkout the wonderful variety of plants, especially the tall, gangly Coffee Weed in the ditches on Parish Parkway while you can. The mowers are to come shortly and level all in their fall mowing.
A new, utilitarian steel barn is underway by our office and will provide needed storage space for us and other Parish departments.
The current drought has parched many plants, the French Mulberry is looking especially wilted, our lawns are browning and the road is dusty. A little rain would be nice but any time the breeze kicks up and stays steady the weather can be fairly tolerable.
Gum Swamp Boardwalk
If you take the crosswalk on Parish Parkway across from Mary’s Grotto, go through the field to the entrance of the Main Trail and take the first path on the right, you’ll find Camp Salmen’s Gum Swamp Boardwalk. It goes through a near swamp — a low, wet spot in the woods we believe was the result of clay mining by the Salmen Brick and Lumber Company a century ago. A temporary railroad or “dummy line” was laid through these woods from the main railroad (what later became the Tammany Trace Bike Trail) and was used first to remove the timber. Then a dragline was brought in to scrape away the topsoil to reveal the ancient clay deposits underneath. This clay was dug up to make bricks at Fritz Salmen’s brick factory by the track in what is now Old Town Slidell. Traces of the rail bed can still be seen here and there in the woods that re-grew after this episode.
There are other remnant clay pits in the park and indeed, all around the Slidell area. Fritz’s brick factory was a juggernaut that made millions and millions of bricks that greatly contributed to the region’s growth and in particular, New Orleans’ Central Business District, in the 1920s including the renowned Roosevelt Hotel.
This low ground forms a basin that holds rainwater that slowly seeps into Goldfish Bayou and on to Bayou Liberty. This flooding reduces the number of small plants here and keeps the ground wet enough for moisture-loving trees like the Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) and Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflu). You can tell the Black Gum by their flared trunks, wrinkly grey bark and pointed leaves, and the Sweet Gum by their five-pointed leaves and spiky, round seedpods that drop all over the place in fall and winter.
The moisture gives rise to other wetland plants like a kind of tall wetland grass with a white button-like flower called Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus); there’s Red Swamp Bay (Persea borbonia) and May haw (Crataegus aestivales), famous for bearing a fruit used in jellies. The Club mosses (Lycopodiopsida) look like weird, light-green, foot long pipe cleaners with bulbous tips. Animals that live in these woods, or like to pay an occasional visit, include blue-tailed skinks, armadillos, eastern grey squirrels, several snake species, deer and many kinds of birds.
We invite you to check it out; the boardwalk is not very far from the Main Pavilion where you’ll find maps and a handout about this attraction. Once there, adventurous hikers may be tempted to keep going and discover some of the other the trails in our woods.
South St. Tammany Nature Tour
Camp Salmen Nature Park shares the natural beauty of St. Tammany Parish with several other places up and down the highway where stately oaks, piney woods, quiet streams and broad marshes are preserved for future generations. Add in the interesting history and culture of this Parish and it’s easy to see what a blessing it is that so many of these wonderful assets are so easily accessible.
Some of these natural and cultural areas can be seen on the drive to or from Camp Salmen Nature Park along Hwy. LA 22/U.S. 190 where federal, state, parish, municipal and private properties are either free to visit or require only a modest admission fee.
The top attraction that literally ties it all together is the twenty-eight mile long Tammany Trace bike path across the Parish. It and its many trailheads scattered along the way perfectly blend the town and country experience.
Beginning in the west, visit historic and scenic Madisonville Water Street on the Tchefuncte River by boat or car. A block away on Main Street is one of the loveliest drives in the state into the marshes south of town.
Just across the river in Mandeville you’ll find venerable old Fairview State Park, Purple Martins under the Causeway, Sunset Point Park and Fishing Pier, the Old Mandeville waterfront and lovely Bayou Castine. A very good museum at the Tammany Trace Trailhead on Girod Street explains the town’s remarkable history.
The Northlake Nature Center next to Pelican Park on the east side of town has miles of wonderful nature trails as does the sprawling Fontainebleau State Park across the highway. This park also features historic ruins, a beach and museum.
The federal Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge along the Pontchartrain shore and their headquarters museum in Lacombe protects 14 miles of lakeshore and thousands of acres of woods and marsh and contains many wonderful trails, roads and boardwalks.
And course, we like to think of Camp Salmen Nature Park as the crown jewel of this string of valuable natural resources and a worthy destination for people seeking to spend some time with nature.
Still, there is plenty more to see on the other side of Slidell. There is the scenic drive down Pontchartrain Drive into the marshes along U.S. Highway 11, Carr Drive and Rats Nest Road on the lake shore, the St. Tammany Fishing Pier, the scenic drive on Highway 90, the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, White Kitchen Preserve and Honey Island Swamp.
See St. Tammany — for a Natural Experience!
Our most common native turtle, one most Louisiana kids have played with and the one you’ll most likely see basking on a log at Camp Salmen is the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). This species is rugged and easy to breed and has been exported in great quantities as pets to Europe, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Asia, the Caribbean and the South Pacific where they have been turned loose by disenchanted and irresponsible pet owners to make itself at home and become an international bully. Yes, our home grown Slidell Slider is someone else’s invasive species, aggressively taking over habitat, displacing the locals and being so brutish about it that it has made the Top 100 List of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species. (They can’t help it.)
Why is this turtle called a slider, you ask? Well, these traits combine: it’s semi-aquatic, so it likes to be in the water, preferably warm, slow moving water (though its completely capable of knocking around on land), it’s “poikilothermic,” meaning its only as active as the temperature it finds itself in (that’s why it’s always basking on logs to “charge up its batteries”) and it’s as paranoid and jumpy as a rabbit, ready to “slide” off the log and escape into the water at the slightest hint of trouble.
It’s winter, so where are they all now? It would be a mistake to say they are hibernating; the herpetologists (reptile scientists) like to say the turtles “bruminate.” Both of these procedures involve slowing the metabolism but the difference seems to be hibernators are “out like a light” for the duration of winter and bruminators can arise on an occasional warm day and get a sip of water before going back to “sleep.”
Their “red ear” is a patch of color right behind their eyes, making them easy to distinguish from all other turtle species. This fades as the turtle gets older. Their actual ears have no external manifestation at all but are under the skin, making the turtle a little hard of hearing. In fact, the animal’s legendary skittishness comes mainly from its sensitivity to vibration. There is some speculation that Mutant Ninja turtles are of this breed, perhaps due to their green color and aggressive, international behavior. However, extensive research does not reveal this red ear patch, unless it’s consistently hidden under Ninja’s omnipresent eye masks.
Everyone is familiar with the flat, upside down paper nests of the Red Wasp (Polistes carolina) hanging from house eaves or hidden in surprising places. We have a big one way up under the peak of the roof of Camp Salmen’s main picnic pavilion. It’s well beyond reach and unlikely to do anyone harm. There are lessons in family values and sisterhood in the life cycle and habits of this insect.
The queen and perhaps a sister or two emerge from winter hibernation to collaborate on a small nest. They fly off to grab small mouthfuls of wood to spit out and form little hexagonal paper cells where the queen’s larvae are deposited. As summer progresses more cells are added, larvae and sisters are made and the nest grows into one big, giggly sorority party. Boys aren’t welcome and are produced only toward the end of the season for mating purposes only. Afterward they’re expected to fly off somewhere and die.
This sisterhood does a few other wasp-like things. They nurture their larvae by stinging hapless caterpillars to quiet them down and then tear hunks of their flesh from their comatose bodies to feed to the young’uns. They also sip nectar in ladylike fashion. The queen goes on a rampage late in spring by taking over other nests, aggressively and viciously driving off its occupants and establishing her own iron rule. She also gives this same treatment to her poor, aging sisters who originally helped her build her nest. She drives them away and they have to try to start their own nests before the cruel winds of winter approach.
How to avoid wasps: In warm months always assume nests can be in any quiet, hidden, covered area. I’ve found them under picnic tables, roof eaves and banana leaves, hanging from tree branches and fences, inside trailer hitches, birdhouses, sheds, horizontal pipes, electrical switch boxes and most any little-used space with openings for them to come and go. You should definitely look first before you proceed or both you and the wasp(s) will be unduly surprised. You’ll get stung and the wasp will go on about her business because, unlike the heroic honeybees that lose their stinger and die, wasps can sting again and again.
Once you locate a nest, then it’s a matter of proximity. If you’re a little too close, all the wasps will turn in unison and stare at you, pricking up their pointy black wings, ready to pounce. If you’re lucky and happen to notice this first, the hair raised on the back of your neck will tell you to back off, otherwise — surprise, surprise.
At safe distances Red Wasps are a “go along, get along” kind of stinging insect and will leave you alone if you leave them alone. I recently discovered that, unbeknownst to me, a nice size nest was not three feet from my head every day I entered our well house last summer. However, some people elect not to take any chances and if they see a nest they apply a wasp spray that has a robust, far-reaching stream.
A friend of mine, who once surveyed East Coast trees for her college degree, came by Camp Salmen last spring. As she walked past the little bridge on the Bayou Liberty trail she suddenly exclaimed, “By golly, I think that’s a northeastern pitch pine!” (Pinus rigida). The reason for her surprise was this was a tree she was pretty familiar with from her studies and it was not supposed to be any closer than Northern Georgia. In fact, it’s the main tree found in the famous New Jersey Pine Barrens, a region so named because of its sandy, acidic soils that never could be farmed but produce a heck of a lot of pine trees. I told her, “You got a sharp eye girl,” as we looked over the specimen. It was huge — one of the largest pines in the park, about three feet wide and a head above the other trees. It looks like it should be at least a century old.
I was curious enough to do some research on the tree. This one had most of the traits of a pitch pine: height, location in sandy soil, a thick bark, similar needles, seed-cones and appearance. The needles were not quite as stout as a pitch pine but these trees are known to hybridize with loblolly, shortleaf and pond pine so it might combined with one of those. Like a lot of plant species that are similar to one another, pine trees can hybridize all on their own and come up with either a whole different species or take on traits that leave botanists arguing over what it is. This tree certainly doesn’t look like the other local pines.
Like the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris ), once the dominant native tree on Camp Salmen land, Pitch Pine is known to ooze gobs of sticky sap or pitch. This was refined into products like tar and resin used to preserve wood and canvas. This was a big industry in these parts and maybe the tree is a remnant of this - Ole Fritz Salmen might have planted it himself. Then again, it could just be a random volunteer.
Unfortunately, we’ll know exactly how old the tree is sooner than later. I was shocked to recently look up and discover it was dead and brown. It doesn’t appear to have any signs of a lightning strike, maybe it was old age, or maybe as a northerner it couldn’t take the heat stress. Since it’s on a busy trail it will have to be removed and we can then count the rings. I’ll let readers know how many. In the meantime, please come by the park and pay your respects.
(Editor’s note: The tree had about 140 rings, meaning it got its start in the 1870s. It also had a sizable termite colony in its center that may have helped kill it.)
St. Tammany and the Pines
St. Tammany Parish’s number one renewable natural resource has always been pine trees. Since the early 1700s, cutting them down and processing them into useful products have been major local industries.
The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) comprised the original forest that blanketed the Southeast’s coastal plain. These huge trees and the ecology of the plants and animals that surrounded them were what Native Americans lived in and adapted to over thousands of years. The first Europeans and then the Americans that later migrated from the Thirteen Colonies logged them to use as the base material for processes and products that met the needs of their time.
- They used pine for lumber. They would fell a tree, saw it into beams and planks and ship it off to build a house, a city or a ship.
- Staves were cut, formed and bound together with iron bands into barrels, a basic mode of storage and transportation for all kinds of commodities.
- Stakes and shingles required the selection of a short section of log with a straight grain and then the use of a sharp-edged tool called a “froe” struck by a mallet to cleave the log into these products.
- They would also burn pine chunks underneath a carefully managed blanket of dirt so that they smoldered and made charcoal. This slow process burned off obnoxious volatiles and left a carbonized, concentrated energy source used in cooking and heating.
- Masts and poles were made only from the strongest, straightest timber that appeared to be without any serious defects.
- Tar, pitch, resin and turpentine were refined from the copious amounts of sap that bled and collected from the Longleaf. These items were called Naval Stores and were vital for preserving rope, sails, wooden boats and other things.
As the nation grew the Longleaf pine forest ended up being largely depleted by the turn of the Twentieth Century and was replaced with the faster growing Slash and Loblolly varieties of pine. Today, vast pine plantations of these trees are used to produce lumber products and wood fiber that is essentially pulped or liquefied wood for use in a multitude of paper-related products.
Now things have gone full circle. The latest thinking is that the old, original forest ecology of Longleaf that evolved here over hundreds of thousands of years was actually best suited to this environment and may prove to be more resilient to the stresses of climate change. There is a movement afoot to restore this ecology and who knows — maybe our great-grandkids will live amongst forests of Longleaf Pine.
A young Longleaf pine, note the long needles. The new growth spire on top is called a “candle.”
Francois Pichon, Neighbor
When Joseph Laurent built his sturdy little trading post on the banks of Bayou Liberty in the early 1800s it became something of a general store serving the community of Bonfouca until the end of the century. In 1901 Fritz Salmen bought it and the surrounding land, eventually turned it over to the Boy Scouts of America and finally St. Tammany Parish Government acquired it in the early 2000s. The old building now stands as the Salmen Lodge in Camp Salmen Nature Park.
One of the store’s neighbors down the bayou was Fracois Sidone Pichon (b. 1818, d. 1896) who kept a journal of his routines from 1848 to 1886. Keeping such a diary was common at this time and was not necessarily about the writer’s innermost thoughts or observations on the issues of the day but could be simply be a dry record of the happenings of day-to-day life. Keeping any diary is always a good discipline and once discovered by posterity it becomes a welcome window to the past. Pichon’s decedents, of which many remain in the neighborhood, were nice enough to have shared the account.
It’s not hard to imagine that the routines in Pichon’s life were not unlike those of many of his Bayou Liberty neighbors. So how did the people of Bonfouca get by in the days before internal combustion engines, satellites, labor saving electric appliances, inflation- adjusted cost of living estimates, computers and nuclear weapons?
Francois’ two main preoccupations were providing food for his family; he had a wife and nine (!) children and the other was his cash business working on the many wooden boats he hauled up onto his bank to caulk and repair. He used his journal to track his almost constant schedule of working on hundreds of the boats that served the bayou and lake trade.
Most of the of the journal’s entries were about tending to the details of farming: maintaining fencing, out buildings, livestock and crop rows and the steady regimen of planting and harvesting demanded by the march of the seasons. Like virtually everyone else in the neighborhood, in these days before Winn-Dixie, he was, first and foremost, a hard working farmer, feeding his family from the land.
The rest of the time he was a hunter. His journal refers to the hundreds of times he went down the bayou into the marshes to shoot ducks, fish or hunt in nearby woods. He proudly kept scrupulous records of what he bagged and who went along with him. These trips were, no doubt, a source of great relaxation to him plus they helped put food on the table.
Other entries throughout a journal are densely packed with details and record the pageant of life and death among the citizens of the bayou including, sadly, those of his own family. His pen usually stayed silent during the times tragedy struck this close. His visits with neighbors, his trading, his occasional trips to the big city across the lake and other north shore communities were also noted and seem to be a relief from the relentlessness of the homestead.
A photo in the frontispiece of the journal shows both Francois and his wife Adele posed before the camera, sitting comfortably and contentedly side-by-side in their middle age and seems to speak across time of “a life well lived.”
When the weather is right, one of the most satisfying tasks at Camp Salmen Nature Park is to literally create more park for people to enjoy. This is done by clearing brush along some of our trails – by thinning out scraggly understory trees and shrubs, by eliminating invasive plants and by trimming low limbs. This opens up nice views and creates nooks and crannies for people to explore. It’s gratifying to see how the foot traffic of park visitors keeps these new areas cleared. Last spring St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, impressed with the park’s Live Oaks, even got into the act by arranging for some mechanical brush clearing to bring several specimens of this magnificent tree out of hiding.
A lot of this work has been done near the water. Beautiful Bayou Liberty, the small Goldfish Bayou tributary and the park’s wetland areas draw people’s attention, particularly adventuresome children, who just naturally have to go to the water’s edge and take a look. Check out these recently cleared areas next time you visit the park:
The downstream end of our Bayou Liberty Trail, just beyond the Salmen Lodge contains two boat slips that were heretofore obscured by brush. The first one is unique: it’s lined with concrete and is pointed at one end for a boat’s bow. It’s from the Scout Era and apparently held their motorboat and was attached to a canoe house. Next to it is a huge fallen Live Oak with its living twin next to it. Both appear to be old enough to have shaded Joseph Laurent when he built his trading post (the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s. Folks are now climbing all over it and getting their picture taken. The trail ends at what we call the Big Boat Slip, built by the previous landowner and now open on all three sides for the curious.
Little Goldfish Bayou is gradually emerging. It’s the park’s only tributary to the big bayou and parts of its banks near the bridge and up and downstream are now visible from different vantage points. More brush is targeted for removal here.
There is a huge clay pit on the north side of our main parking lot that has been hidden behind a screen of invasive Chinese Privet, Cherokee Rose and native Pepper Vine. Most visitors don’t realize it’s there. Because of the pit’s limited drainage it’s full of interesting wetland plants. Look for an expanse of Lizard tail blossoms this spring. It should make a pleasant welcome for people getting out of their cars on their way to a walk in the park.
There is a whimsical old Christmas holiday tradition of hanging a bough of Mistletoe (genus Phoradendron) in a doorway and using it as a lure or an excuse to peck the lips of a significant other who happens to occupy the same space. The idea is as old as the Druids and was a public mania when I was a kid. Small twigs of the stuff were packaged in cellophane and available at cash registers for spontaneous purchase. Later, my friends and I got so rabid about it we conducted mistletoe hunts from a boat, using a long-barreled goose gun to collect huge quantities. Alas, the custom is not as prevalent as it once was but kissing, thank goodness, has never gone out of style.
After the leaves drop from the trees in winter it becomes evident to what extent these evergreen, parasitic shrubs infest the woods. Their dark, clumpy forms are easy to spot high up in the bare trees. To be more precise, they are “hemi-parasitic,” that is, they can get some of their nutrients on their own with the use of chlorophyll in their leaves but they usually get most of it, plus a fair measure of water, by mercilessly sucking it out of the host tree. They actually take root in the fiber of the tree’s high branches with an organ called a haustorium. These can be so detrimental to the host it may eventually result in the branch falling off, taking the parasite with it.
You have to wonder how people got the idea of mixing a botanical parasite with love.
Curiously, the etymology of the word mistletoe derives from old German for dung (mist) and branch (tan). It turns out, the sticky white seeds of the plant, which are toxic to humans, get stuck to the beaks of the birds that gobble them up. Since they have no table manners or napkins, these birds are known to wipe the seeds from their beaks (or poop them out) on tree branches, thereby spreading the plant to another host. Those Germans sure had keen powers of observation. So do modern naturalists. They have determined this parasite is actually important to the ecological diversity of the forest by providing food, pollen and nesting material to the different animals that may actually depend on them.
There are generally three types of Mimosas found in the Greater Slidell Metropolitan Area:
- The Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) is a lovely, exotic-looking Asian tree of medium size with dainty, fern-like leaves, pink flowers and a spreading, flattop shape. They fit in well with artificial landscaping schemes.
- There is the popular libation made of chilled champagne and juice traditionally served in a fluted glass at weddings, brunches and lawn parties.
- And finally, the Mimosa Weed, also known as Chamberbitter (Phyllanthus urinaria), a small obnoxious plant that pops up everywhere there is disturbed ground which includes most of the Greater Slidell Metropolitan Area, especially gardens.
This last item gets its nickname because it looks like a tiny Mimosa tree seedling. It has durable little seeds that can bide their time and sprout when you’ve turned your back. This summertime plant grows almost immediately into a sprawling, rangy, red-stemmed tangle that doesn’t get much more than a foot tall and spreads out to cover only a square foot or two of ground. It’s an Asian import from the tropics and has become “pantropic” to infest much of the southeastern U.S. It has become cold resistant enough to have taken a bite out of southern Illinois too.
Because the first starts of this plant look like little Mimosa trees, many people mistake them as the result of that tree’s prolific seed output. Because there are so many of them, they seem to grow from among the roots of plants we want to keep, making herbicides impossible to use, so gardeners have to give them the old hand treatment. Though sometimes it seems as though it’s darkest before the dawn, all is not lost; there are at least a couple of positive notes about the weed.
1.) Since they only seem to invade disturbed soil they have not naturalized enough to go toe-to-toe with native plants and have not escaped into truly wild places. You only find them in urban areas and in places where man has torn up the soil. 2.) This plant has long been recognized in Asia for its medicinal qualities and now Western scientists are giving serious research into using it for curing kidney stones, gallstones, liver diseases, viral infections and possibly tumors.
A bright green lizard hunted on the railing outside the Camp Salmen office, creeping a few inches at a time until he suddenly jumped to clamp his jaws around a tiny bug. Occasionally he would abruptly stop his forward progress, do some tiny push-ups, raise his head and extend his bright, ruby red dewlap from his throat for all to see. He was notifying any nearby female lizards that he was a stud and available; just in case any were watching, you understand. To any male lizards that happened to be in the neighborhood there was this bold statement: “This is MY territory. Stay away. The girl lizards are mine, too.”
It’s hard to believe that, besides alligators and a handful of other less ubiquitous lizards, this swaggering six-inch critter is all that’s left of Louisiana’s once mighty Reptilia lizard class. The dinosaurs that populated the state and the world with seven-ton monsters that ate 80-ton monsters during their millions-of-years rule are now just bones and Mesozoic ooze in the strata below our feet. However, asteroids and mass extinction have not held back our little friend because he shares many of the same traits and possesses the entire attitude.
The proper name for the lizard is Anole. They are also called chameleons because they can change color. This is courtesy of special cells in their skin called chromatophores that can switch the animal’s appearance from either a shade of brown to a shade of green, depending on the brightness and color of the surroundings and their mood. This is unlike the true African and Asian chameleons, the ones with the curly tails, cocked eyes and smooth moves that have such a larger color palette to work with they can even go polka dot if they have to. Among the anoles there are rare mutations that are blue or yellow but they are a lot easier to spot by predators and tend to get eaten. If a cat or a kid mauls an anole their mood and color darken. They become dark brown, get black circles around their eyes and act morose. Wouldn’t you?
Though the proper name of this creature is Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) most people around here just call them lizards. They are the predominant native variety though there are a half-dozen similar species that were imported from the Caribbean as pets and turned loose. The brown anole from Cuba and the Bahamas is invading the U.S. South and taking over ground level habitats from the Carolina variety, driving them into the treetops. These are recognizable by an orange dewlap and a zigzag pattern on their back. They can also change colors but only into a festive black, how can you tell what mood they’re in? I haven’t seen any at Camp Salmen so far, so little Romeo is free to roam the railings, looking for love and bugs.
The heat of summer has been beastly lately, so how do the beasts of Camp Salmen keep from overheating or expiring outright? They use thermoregulation — the ability to keep their temperature within the right operating range in order to function properly. While winter’s cold requires that hot and cold-blooded animals use a certain set of strategies, Louisiana’s endless, torrid summer demands a whole other set of tricks, unless, of course, you’re a human and you just head for the air conditioning.
Avoidance — dig a hole in the ground and stay in it during the heat of the day like armadillos, some reptiles and insects do. The number one rule: stay in the shade! Crawl under something; seek the coolest microclimate, preferably one with moisture (more about that in a bit). If you can, fly away to a cooler part of the continent like Canadian Geese do. Elephants and hippopotami (neither of which reside at Camp Salmen by the way) would ease themselves into the cooling waters of Bayou Liberty like our alligators do.
Topor — this is the summer version of winter hibernation when high-vibration animals like hummingbirds and bats hole up during the heat of the day and quiet down.
Panting—dogs, wolves, lemurs, alligators, birds and bears, all covered in either insulating fat, feathers or fur, simply open their mouths and suck in the outside air to turn their oral cavities and lungs into heat exchangers that exhaust internal heat. Some of these animals do this in combination with other techniques. Shedding fur and feathers from a winter coat is another good idea.
Sweat — if a human can’t stay in air conditioning, he or she must rely on his or her sweat. For those that exist all summer by scampering from one air conditioned space to another and somehow end up trapped outside, you’ll recognize this condition by the wet stuff oozing out of your pores to the point of saturating your clothing. Don’t panic and freak out or call an ambulance, this might just save your life.
The sweating technique is used to varying degrees by most mammals, but horses and humans do it by the gallon. It takes advantage of an elegant aspect of physics: evaporative cooling. When a droplet of water (or sweat) turns into vapor it actually stores heat at the molecular level, creating a sensible cooling effect. Adding moving air helps tremendously.
I can’t imagine how people lived here before electric fans and air conditionings were invented.
A plant now putting on a bizarre fall display at Camp Salmen is the French Mulberry (Callicarpa Americana), also known as the American Beautyberry. It grows several round clumps of purple-lavender colored berries stacked “Dr. Seuss style” up and down its stalks.
Raccoons love the berries. Last fall we watched a large ‘coon clumsily climb onto one of these plants to nosh on them. He was oblivious to our presence, probably because he was preoccupied by their wholesome goodness.
I learned the berries were safe for humans, tried some and concluded there was not much to recommend them. However, I suppose if you lived outside all the time, were covered in fur, had no income and couldn’t get to a store, you’d resort to such a thing. Indeed, since the berries occur in great quantities in the park all sorts of other mammals and birds also take advantage of this bounty.
Apparently, my trying some of these berries was not too far off base; the longer they stay on the plant, supposedly the sweeter they become. People who wait for them to be at their peak use them to make jellies, wine and pies. If consumed in large enough quantities they also have a laxative effect, so beware, not too many pies at once! Also, the leaves of the plant have an insect repellant quality and folks have been known to stuff them in their clothing to enjoy this effect. Imagine the sight.
As an aside, another mulberry, the one from the Morus species, was once important to St. Tammany’s extinct silk industry. Yes, that’s right; Mulberry Grove Plantation just north of Covington was planted in the 1830s as a home for the silkworms that favored the leaves of this plant. Silk production from this caterpillar’s cocoons was originally an ancient Chinese technology, one that caused Marco Pollo and other adventurous Europeans to travel great distances in the 1300s to bring back this luxuriant textile. The colonial French brought the trees and the “worms” to Louisiana as they cast about for ways to make money from their new colony. The enterprise did not last but the place name and the trees remain.
I love the ditch life at Camp Salmen. No, this is not about some personal moral failure of mine, it’s about the true diversity and beauty of things growing in the drainage ditches along the park’s Parish Parkway; check it out when you drive in, you’ll be gobsmacked.
Moisture, slope, soil and semi-annual mowing by the St. Tammany Department of Public Works make this mini-ecology one of the most diverse, rapidly changing habitats in the park. Its many wildflowers and plants are either politely waiting their turn in the growing season, vying for a place in the sun in intense, merciless competition or starting over again to resume their rise to supremacy. Such drama!
Recently, the most prominent plant in the ditch and on the parkway has been the wispy, spire-like Dog fennel (Eupatorium compositifolium). If the name seems familiar it’s because it’s cousin to a plant whose seed is a popular seasoning for pork, fish and lamb chops. After crushing some of the dog fennel I smelled something green and fresh like from the kitchen cutting board and also smelled something pungent like Vic’s VapoRub.
This week the rising star in the ditch is Coffee Weed (Sesbania herbacea). It’s popping up along the Parkway and will become huge four and five foot high banks of emerald green clumps before the mowers arrive. It has foot-long, star-shaped fronds of small, paired leaves that splay out from tall, spindly stalks and have an appearance that reminds one of a fern or mimosa; some confuse it with Rattlebox. They eventually develop pretty little orange-yellow flowers that beget long, skinny seedpods containing the namesake “bean.” Unfortunately, these won’t make a good pot of coffee because, in spite of the name, they are poisonous.
For a plant, they sure do move a lot. Their vertical growth is so fast you can probably hear them crackle at night. In addition to that, they’re “heliotropic” (Greek: “helio” = sun, “tropic” = turn). At the beginning of the day their leaves and stems face east toward the morning sun. During the day they slowly twist to follow the sun and end up facing west. This obviously helps them drink up as much of the sun’s photons as they can. The plant also performs the nocturnal act of “nyctinasty,” (Greek: “nukt” = night + “nasty”). At dark the leaves fold up and stay that way for the night, which seems like an appropriate thing to do after such a hard day’s work.
You may have read about the plants and animals at Camp Salmen Nature Park, so what about the ground upon which all their activities take place? This fundamental aspect of the park contains just a little bit of concrete and a lot of dirt.
The concrete here is mostly left over from old Boy Scout structures. Concrete is, as a matter of fact, man-made limestone. The Romans figured out how to use this mineral’s transformative ability. It can be ground into a fine power then wetted, formed and the dried to resume being hard as a rock. In modern times people have vastly increased its strength and usefulness by reinforcing it with iron rods, allowing mankind to advance from viaducts and small pagan temples to interstates and soaring skyscrapers.
But, what about dirt; what is this mysterious substance that is the foundation of all the things growing in the park? It is made of just two basic components.
Minerals – In other parts of the country, rocks from deep within the Earth are exposed at the surface and are broken down by water and weathered into clay, silt, sand and gravel. Since there are no native rocks on the Earth’s surface anywhere near here, most of this material is imported to Louisiana by the Mississippi River. Also, in the recent geologic past, mass movement of these materials into the South came from the rushing melt water from rock-grinding Ice Age glaciers.
Organic material – The surface of the Earth is crawling with life forms frantically stealing parcels of energy and carbon from each other or manufacturing it out of sunlight. Most of these die and rot, or more politely, break down through biologic activity and the magic of chemistry; otherwise there’d be great piles of the stuff all over the place. Even the bottom of the deep ocean accumulates a steady rain of dead material drifting down from above. A certain percentage of this dead material holds onto its stolen carbon and energy, is covered up and magically turned into hydrocarbon items like coal, gas and petroleum.
This rind of dead stuff mixed with rocks clinging to the surface of the planet is elegantly referred to as soil and includes minor amounts of water and gasses. From this mixture sprout things growing from it and living in it like Camp Salmen’s trees, earthworms, doodle bugs, moles, ants and armadillos.
During the last of the heat of summer, the air around Camp Salmen is filled with the thunderous serenade of the Cicadas (order Hemiptera). If you listen carefully you’ll hear the different summertime songs used by different species to attract mates. Some have a long, loud ascending then descending song. Some have an undulating ”wee-oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” song. Some sing for just a few seconds at a time. It is supposed that a bunch of them singing in one location have it so their songs overlap and confuse predators. Indeed, it’s hard to tell exactly where they are up there among the leaves of the trees.
All cicadas spend most of their lives underground in the dirt sucking on roots. Most varieties do this for two to eight years but two varieties famously stay underground for 13 and 17 years. The thirteen-year brood just emerged to great fanfare both in the press and in the air around the park. In the end, the cicada finally crawls out of the dirt up a tree trunk and the tender “nymph” shucks itself out of the back of its last molt and leaves the empty shell clinging there. They stiffen up to look sort of like a huge, bug-eyed fly and spend this final stage singing in the trees and mating. Ah, the life.
They make sound with a membrane in their chest called a “tymbal.” When they suck it in it makes a loud click and when it flexes back out it makes another click. They do this so rapidly it makes a buzz and hollow chambers and vents in their chest and throat amplify it to a hundred decibels and attenuate the sound to their taste. One observer wrote that holding a cicada when they made noise was like holding a joy buzzer.
Some mistakenly call them locusts but a true locust is more like the kinds of grasshoppers that occur in great, Biblical plagues to consume Midwestern crops and clog car radiators.
Cicadas are usually accompanied by the staccato, late summer trilling of crickets in the background but it all sounds just like a case of tinnitus to me.
And, yes, they are eaten by people in Africa, Asia and Latin America and, at one time, by the Ancient Greeks but, alas, this did not remain a part of European culinary tradition. Now some folks in Columbia, Missouri are trying to get the ball rolling on cicada eating in the U.S. but I don’t think it will catch on here since we already have our own peculiar culinary habit of eating “Mudbugs” in mass quantities.
One creature at Camp Salmen I just can’t seem to warm up to is the centipede (Latin for hundred foot ). They live in the grungiest environments; amongst rot and decay, in filthy cracks and underneath things you probably ought not to have turned over.
They’re not enchanting. They don’t turn into moths or butterflies and they have too many legs. You can’t even look them in the eye because they barely have any, all they can see is whether its night or day.
Actually, the more I research them the less there is to like. They are creatures of the night, spending their days lurking in dark, moist places. Some are poisonous, with pincers on their back ends and they can have venomous bites that are painful to humans and deadly to small animals. They are predators, known to attack, and eat, small birds, spiders, mice, bats, lizards, earthworms and most anything with a soft body. Of course, adorable creatures like mongooses, rats, salamanders and snakes eat them. Lovely bunch, the whole lot of them; they all deserve each other.
More centipede facts: it’s thought there are some 8,000 varieties of this arthropod in all manner of environments all over the planet. They are cousins to the Millipedes who have even more legs. They appeared hundreds of millions of years ago and, depending on the variety that arose from this auspicious event, come with 30 to 300 pair of legs, can live up to six years and are up to 12 inches long. One redeeming quality is they take care of their young, by either licking the fungus off of them, or simply eating them (I guess it depends on what you mean by "take care of”). They can also make humans do a spontaneous, spastic little dance if one accidentally lands on them.
Of course, the species found in our nature park are strictly of the small, harmless kind, so much so they are almost cute and cuddly.
Camp Salmen's Notable Oaks
Camp Salmen Nature Park has many large, fine old Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) scattered within its 130-acre boundaries. Their greatest concentration is on the high ground by Bayou Liberty. Well before the Boy Scouts came, even before Joseph Laurent built his trading post on the bayou two hundred years ago, the people who occupied this site enjoyed the tree’s shade and beauty.
We measured and mapped many of the oaks on the ridge and the Parish cleared around some of them to make them more visible. In order to keep track of “where is what” in the park we use the oaks as landmarks and have given some of them names. They probably had names before but since we don’t know what they were we’ve taken the liberty of doing it again:
The Leaning Oak – This tree on the edge the Parade Ground is, by far, the most popular tree in the park and a main attraction in its own right. Something made it lean over years ago and someone was nice enough to prop it up with a couple of heavy iron pipes. The tree has also done an admirable job of helping itself by bulking up its “fore roots.” It presents a gently sloping, humped-back that is too tempting to the thousands of children and adults compelled to climb on it.
Bayou Liberty Oaks – There are several nice oaks in the vicinity of the Salmen Lodge and amphitheater that frame Bayou Liberty nicely and provide a splendid light show every afternoon when the sun in the Western sky glows through the hanging Spanish moss.
The Cathedral Oak – This large, old oak apparently spent its youth growing up and away from a crowd of trees growing from the clay pit Joseph Laurent dug for making bricks across from his trading post. Spending time under its spreading, protective branches is like being in a natural cathedral.
The Broken Oak is the unlucky twin to the large, living tree next to Salmen Lodge. It is impressive how many tons are held in the air by these trees and what is left of this one has split from its massive trunk and is resting on the ground.
The Parking Lot Hat Rack Oak – This lone tree, along with several others in the park, probably grew up out of crowded conditions that allowed it to have a broad crown but no drooping branches.
Mary’s Oaks in the vicinity of her grotto are an impressive grouping that includes another massive broken oak as well as several “hat rack” trees that are next to the park’s the future link to the Tammany Trace bike path.
The Order of the Arrow Oak is the King-Daddy of the park’s oaks by virtue of its great girth and the fact it is the only one registered with Louisiana’s Live Oak Registry. It was named by the Scouts after one of their ceremonies and now resides in the middle of the park’s Nature Garden.
Are there sharks at Camp Salmen? Well, maybe. Lake Pontchartrain is only four miles away and it is a well-established fact that it is a temporary kindergarten for juvenile (3-5 ft.) Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in the lake during the summer. Members of this species are tolerant of fresh water and are known to make forays up streams to look for food. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a stretch but what else is there to worry about?å
I’ll never forget the story former St. Tammany Parish Councilwoman and commercial fisherman Connie Glockner told about wade fishing at Goose Point, right next door to Bayou Liberty. She didn’t know it was a favorite gathering place for schools of young Bull Sharks. When she happened to look down and saw dozens of dark shark forms swimming all around her she got out of there faster than in a hurry.
The Boy Scouts used to routinely paddle to the lake from here, camp out on the shore and return the next day. Presumably some swimming was involved. I wonder if they knew about the lake’s summertime Bull Shark population.
These stories help emphasize the fact that there have been no recorded attacks by Bull Sharks in the long history of people in Lake Pontchartrain. The sharks spawn in Chandeleur Sound and like many other oceanic species use the brackish waters of the lake’s estuary to grow up in relative peace before venturing into the open ocean to become top predators. When they’re young and in the lake they make like the callow youth they are and only pick on small fish.
The shark has a propensity for swimming up rivers and has even been spotted way up the Mississippi as far as Illinois. They’ve earned nicknames like Zambezi Shark, Lake Nicaragua Shark and Ganges Shark after the water bodies where people have been inadvertently feeding the big adult version of the species (7-8 ft.) for centuries. Can this sort of thing happen here at Camp Salmen? I repeat, there have been no recorded attacks by Bull Sharks in Lake Pontchartrain and, presumably, any of its tributaries. Besides, we don’t allow swimming in the park anyway.
Melodic Bluegrass mountain music with guitars, fiddles and plaintive, high lonesome voices — white soul music, if you will — does not necessarily come to mind when driving down Camp Salmen’s Parish Parkway. What you will see, however, is plenty of actual Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). Clumps of the grass with the blue-grey cast are mixed in with the menagerie of other grasses and herbaceous plants that line the road.
Grasses have been important to mankind for thousands of years for crops, feeding our livestock, ornamenting our surroundings with lawns and making sports such as baseball and golf possible. Grass is from a group of plants called graminoids which include rushes, reeds and sedges; however, I’ve never heard anyone declare, “The graminoids are always greener on the other side of the hill.”
The secret to grass is that, unlike oak trees, banana plants, or rose bushes for instance, you can crop off blades of grass just above the root and they will grow back quickly just as they were, time and again. Animals that man either employs or eats such as sheep, cattle, goats, rabbits, horses, llamas, deer, camels and antelope, in turn, eat grass in a procedure called grazing.
These animals practically live with their heads bowed to the ground and typically use a front set of teeth ideal for nipping off the blades, a set of molars for grinding the blades into something like hummus and a set of multiple stomachs to thoroughly process it.
Any farmer who raises grazing livestock will tell you he makes his living as a grass farmer as much as by raising animals and not just any grass will do. Nutritional content of grass is affected by soil and growing conditions and these make some areas of the country better than others for growing good grass for livestock.
Much sought after acreage like the meadowlands of the Bluegrass Region in Kentucky, where underlying limestone helps the grass contribute to strong and sturdy horses or the Flint Hills of Kansas where cattle are fat and happy, are prime examples. Not so much for grass in Louisiana, but it works well enough to make the state rank somewhere in the middle of the pack nationwide for raising cattle.
Black Swallowtail Butterflies
Earlier this summer I watched a pair of Black Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) flutter madly around each other. This species seems to be Camp Salmen’s most numerous and arguably, its prettiest butterfly. They fly with big, floppy wings that seem ungainly but they appear to navigate with great aeronautic skill because they seem to be able to go straight to where they want to go
I couldn’t tell if the two were mating or fighting. It seems the species is pretty much preoccupied with defending territory or getting hooked up with the opposite sex. As they flitted and bumped into each other I imagined they were either doing a delicate, poetic aerial ballet set to romantic violin music, or they were just fighting like a pair of sissies. It turns out it should have been pretty easy to tell since the boys have gold dots on the top and bottom of their wings and the girls have beautiful blue hues on theirs.
Now the summer is waning and I’m amazed they’re still around. An insect this big, black and slow, lazily gliding around open fields, ought to be an easy target for hungry insectivores on the wing. In their previous larval version they were a gaudy green, white, yellow and black striped caterpillar that looked like it came out of Alice in Wonderland. These make themselves unpalatable by eating things that make them taste toxic. Though the adult butterfly does not do this and is, indeed, edible, predators still avoid them. They accomplish this by simply mimicking the appearance of another big, black butterfly, the Pipevine Swallowtail that is toxic. Apparently, potential predators elect to take no chances and leave both bugs alone.
Being endowed with the classic, coiled up butterfly proboscis, the Black Swallowtail feeds on nectar all summer long by unrolling and jabbing this appendage into flowers to get the sugar rush it needs for all that fluttering around. It is during this act that it performs the double duty of inadvertently spreading pollen from flower to flower, and doing plants a huge favor since they can’t easily do this for themselves because they have no wings and don’t get around like the butterfly does.
There isn’t a season or a time of day birds aren’t singing at Camp Salmen. In springtime when love is in the air, a great variety of birds of a feather are trying to get together, however, mating isn’t the only reason birds call out. Sometimes they’re letting everyone in earshot know it’s their territory or they’re warning others of potential predators in the neighborhood or maybe they’re trying to locate a lost chick. Sometimes it seems they simply want everyone to know how happy they are just to be here. So you’d think that an animal that relies so much on making noise would have big ears to listen; big honking ones like a Fruit Bat, yet they appear to have none.
Birds do, in fact have ears but not external ones. They lack pairs of the sound-gathering devices called “pinna” (ears) found on other animal’s heads. Besides avoiding the obvious problems with wind resistance they seem to do pretty well with just holes located a little behind and below the eyes. These are usually covered with fine feathers for a couple of reasons. One is to keep stuff out of the hole and the other is to function like a foam cover over a blustery politician’s microphone; it filters out the wind noise that flying would bring about. This technique works very well for hawks and owls, Birdland’s best listeners. They can hear clearly enough to concentrate on faint rustlings that betray the presence of a mouse or other prey in the leaf litter down below. Additionally, their ears are lopsided; each is not located on the exact opposite place on their head. This asymmetry makes it easier to more closely determine exactly where the sound is coming from, giving Mr. Mouse even less of a chance of avoiding detection. Oddly enough, what look like ears on Screech and Horned Owls are just ornamental tufts of feathers.
Birds hear about as well as humans. Their inner ear is actually structured like ours with multiple chambers, eardrums, little tapping bones and fluid-filled cochleae containing tiny hairs to translate sound into nerve impulses. Scientists have been able to strap them down and submit them to audio testing to find they are superior in detecting some aspects of sound and come up short in others. See http://www.earthlife.net/birds/hearing.html.
Another vital function of ears for birds is finding and maintaining the pitch-perfect balance they need to operate within the three dimensions they travel. This is very important for an animal that can whip around trees like they do or perch high on a wire to sing their little hearts out and not fall down.
The Spanish Conquistadores, who apparently loved wearing armor in the tropical heat, affectionately named the unusual critter they found in Mexico little armored one — or Armadillo. However, the local Aztecs, who had been around this animal a much longer time, knew them as rabbit-turtles.
Camp Salmen’s Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) look like little rambling helmets. Their furry undersides are soft and unprotected but they can curl up (thus the nine segments in their shell) and get a certain amount of protection. This shell is actually more like thick leather and is a little flexible. It does a good job of ignoring insect stings and discouraging predators. They can successfully turn their backs on an attacker when pinned down in their burrows.
I was shocked when I first saw an armadillo in action. From photographs I imagined they were ponderous, lumbering beasts. Instead, they are quick, fidgety hustlers, constantly digging here and there for a tasty morsel. This insectivore has an acute sense of smell and jabs its pointed nose again and again into leaf litter and soil as it claws to find grubs, worms, beetles, eggs or the occasional wiggly lizard. They’ll make a mess of Camp Salmen’s freshly mulched gardens. They can also bust up anthills and use their sticky tongue to lap up ants and termites.
The ancestors of the armadillo were South American, and millions of years ago some evolved to be the size of automobiles. In all, they’ve developed about twenty varieties including the Screaming Hairy Armadillo, the Hairy Long-nosed Armadillo, the five-foot Giant Armadillo and the diminutive (five inch) Pink Fairy Armadillo.
Falling sea level eventually allowed this breed to migrate north through Panama where the Nine-Banded Armadillo became the most successful species. They were known as a strictly Mexican item until they crossed the Rio Grande in the late 1800s and began to rapidly expand their range into the United States. They were still somewhat unusual around here when I was a kid and are now quite commonplace. They are now found across Dixie from the Rockies to the Atlantic and as far north as Kansas.
Unfortunately, people are most familiar with the animal as road-kill. They have a disastrous behavioral trait of jumping a couple of feet straight up when surprised, like when a car is suddenly and successfully steered over them, then they get nailed by the undercarriage.
Species relocation and displacement has gotten more and more serious over the last few centuries, especially since the invention of intercontinental sailing ships and airplanes. Environmental problems like water and air pollution are within our realm of technical abilities to address but it is not quite as easy when it comes to mankind’s rearrangement of species all over the planet. Now, aggressive new invaders that are not going away are suddenly crowding out native species that had slowly evolved in-place.
This month’s invasive species is the Air Potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), a starchy tuber or yam that grows from a vine that can get to be seventy feet long, tall enough to get to the top of our tallest tress. It has large, shiny valentine-shaped leaves and dangles a little brown potato used for making even more potato vines. The plant originated in tropical Africa and Asia where it is used by people for food and folk medicine. Fortunately, none are known to be at Camp Salmen but they’ve been seen around town. People gladly grow them in their yard because they are quick and pretty but they can take over the neighborhood by using their shady leaves to steal the sunlight and turn living shrubs and trees into dead trellises, similar to what Kudzu does. Like all obnoxious plants they are hard to eradicate.
An expedition of naturalists recently went to Grand Isle in a desperate effort to try to keep Air Potato vines from taking over the rare and beautiful natural oak forest in the middle of the island. I’m surprised the Cajuns down there haven’t come up with some way to cook these things and take care of the problem. Alas, the potato from the variety growing here is considered by some to be toxic and bitter (it’s full of diosgenin, a steroid used in the manufacture of birth-control pills). However another source states that, despite their slimy texture, they need only to be diced, rinsed in water, and cooked to make them safe. The Japanese use them in their pancakes and in other dishes. For a number of principled reasons I’ll stick with the Idaho varieties of potato.
The gorgeous, heart-shaped, shiny, shade producing leaves of the air potato.
You can tell there are Beaver (Castor canadensis) at Camp Salmen by the pointy stumps and sticks from the small trees they’ve gnawed. Humans almost always use saws. Beavers supposedly do this to gather materials for building their dams and lodge
Man has long admired the animal’s engineering skills. They essentially create favorable habitat for themselves and other species by impounding large ponds in which they find food and shelter. This can radically change the ecology of the part of the woods where they operate and can sometimes leave them at odds with landowners.
Scientific observers have found that the beaver keys in on the sound of running water so it can find a likely place to build a dam and to detect leaks needing repair. One scientist experimented by leaving a tape recorder playing the sound of running water next to a beaver dam overnight (beavers are nocturnal) and found it covered in mud and sticks the next day.
Our local beaver went too far when it began to damage our young cypress trees. I recently found a small, four-inch cypress log with almost all of the bark carefully chewed off. The critter left row after row of neatly spaced gnaw marks as if he was attacking the stick like a corncob. I assume beaver go after cypress bark in the dead of winter when there is not much else to eat. In retaliation I’ve attached a few plastic nutria/beaver/weed-eater guards around some of the trees close by the water. The beaver is probably holed up in the bank nearby.
North America was initially built on beaver pelts. The animal possesses a thick, luxuriant under-fur that Europeans and Americans in earlier times just loved to wear. The trade in these pelts fueled the exploration of the continent and the economies of New France, the western frontier and of the Native Americans.
Besides their pelts, beavers are harvested for their glands. This is truly weird. Back by the base of their wide, fat tail are castor glands that have several uses. The beaver uses them for waterproofing itself and making a scent for marking territory. Humans use the glands to make up to $40 apiece with the Government of Ontario. Perfumers age the gland to get that popular leather smell found in some perfumes and in a new-car aerosol applied to vintage automobiles that have leather seats. Used as a food flavoring, it enhances raspberry and strawberry flavors and by itself tastes and smells like vanilla which leads to its use in some schnapps and cigarette products. Beekeepers use the stuff to prompt bees into producing more honey. Who knew?
Misunderstood by some and pretty much considered useless by just about everyone else (except for the birds and bats who eat them) are the gangly, bumbling Crane Flies (from the fly family Tipulidae). They recently popped out of the ground in their long-legged thousands at Camp Salmen and promise to be here all summer long. They’re mildly obnoxious, like someone you have to put up with in your life that has a harmless but persistent personality disorder.
So what exactly do Crane Flies do? Blunder into people’s faces, sit where they don’t belong, land in food, buzz around light bulbs, lose their legs at the slightest provocation, mate so there can be a fresh batch of them as soon as they can lay eggs and then leave their expended corpses on our nice, clean floors. They live most of their lives as long, plump larva, eating rotting organic debris in soil and water bottoms and (I’m not sure why) have the rugged, he-man name “leatherback.” They have other false identities, some that give them a more ferocious reputation than they deserve.
Some people think these things are male mosquitoes. This may be an understandable mistake considering many species we encounter are “sexually dimorphic,” that is, there is a remarkable difference between the male and the female version. (We like to say among our own kind, “vive la difference.”) Actually, you practically need a microscope to tell male and female mosquitoes apart. Though Crane flies are similar in appearance to mosquitoes they are ten times larger and don’t bite (although I’ve seen some people, mostly girls, freak out at the sight of them).
Crane Flies have also been misidentified as May Flies, though this insect looks more closely like a Dragonfly and has a little more grace and purpose in life.
Crane flies are also known as mosquito hawks and mosquito eaters. This folklore probably happened because they look like big ‘skeeters that would probably hunt small ‘skeeters but nothing can be further from the truth. The adult Crane Flies we see flying around don’t hunt; they don’t even have mouths and die shortly after mating. A mosquito could care less if Crane Flies are present.
Among the first things to billow out of the ground at the beginning of Camp Salmen’s spring are large, luxuriant clouds of emerald green clover. Anyone who remembers how cool and bountiful it feels to their bare feet just wants to get down and wallow in it. Only a sense of propriety may hold them back.
To be less poetic, clover actually grows in mats. The tri-leaves are on stalks sprouting from a web of spreading, horizontal, underground roots called rhizomes. Clovers are a vital link in the nitrogen cycle of life on the planet. They live with symbiotic bacteria on the microscopic root hairs of their root nodes that take this inert gas and convert it into a form more useful to plants and leave it in the soil in a process called nitrogen fixation. This naturally preps the ground for the growing season and is smarter and cheaper than fertilizer.
If you examine our springtime groundcover you’ll see there are several types of clover here, all in the Trifolium family. White Clover is largest, with faint white chevrons on each of its three leaves and spherical white flowers popular with bees. Yellow or Subterranean Clover is slightly smaller and has small yellow flowers. These two apparently originated in Europe, North Africa and west Asia and were brought here to act as agricultural cover crops and forage for livestock and deer. They’ve since gotten away and have spread everywhere on this continent. Yes, some Americans have actually been known to eat clover by spreading in on their salads. It’s high in proteins, making it a good survival food but is a little rough on the digestion. Therefore, it is not recommended that someone get down and their knees and graze it directly off the ground but boil it in water a little first.
For those of you who have “looked over a four-leaf clover that you overlooked before” here’s the rub: the reason for this is you have only a one in 10,000 chance of finding a clover with this mutation because that’s how often they occur in a patch of clover. You can increase your odds by intensely staring at the patch for an interminable time but that, unfortunately, is supposed to neutralize the luck you’d be getting if you just looked down and found it. Even more rare are five-leaf clovers and clover has been found with even more leaves but looking for these would really be pressing your luck. The botanists haven’t made up their minds if genetics, environment, or a combination of the two, causes this phenomenon, but the most viable theory is that it’s because of leprechauns.