Venturing Outdoors To Appreciate Nature

Goldenrod ball gall in the summer.

When I venture outdoors, I usually end up in forests. I find myself meandering through evergreens in the winter, walking by flowing creeks in the spring and crunching through colorful leaves in the fall. Whatever the terrain, there are usually a variety of forests along the way. But every so often the forest opens up into a wide open space largely devoid of trees where I stop for only a moment to appreciate the flowers before heading quickly on my way back into the trees.

For most of my life, I haven’t given fields and meadows the attention and time they deserve. There is a lot of life going on in that tangled mass. It wasn’t until I found myself in the alpine meadows of the Sierra Nevadas that I took the time to stop and truly look around. Once I found myself back on the East coast again, the realization that fields are actually not as stagnant as they seem came with me. I frequently still breeze by them, but sometimes I remember to take the time to explore and I’m reminded of what amazing little ecosystems are present.

Choosing to walk through and observe a field in the winter is an intentional act for me, because at first glance, it feels underwhelming. All of the grasses, wildflowers and soaring, buzzing and hopping life have stilled. The wind-blown dead grasses and long stems brush and rattle against each other in the wind, but otherwise it all feels quiet and still. The trees surrounding the field are also mostly bare, with just a few stubborn, brown leaves hanging on.

However, the subdued colors and sparsely decorated plants allow us to see what is hidden during the lush spring and summer months. Along the edge of the field, bird nests and wasp hives hang much more obviously among high branches without leaves to hide behind. The holes made by insects and woodpeckers are visible on the trunks.

Within the field itself, the grasses and leaves have fallen or died back and the slim, unopened dogbane seed pods sit next to the empty milkweed ones. Among the trampled grass, the goldenrod stems are still standing, seemingly each one with a bulbous growth on the stem. These growths on the plant are common and even though I have seen them my whole life, I was much older before I learned what was causing this strange ball in the middle of the stem.

Fields are easy to walk past and ignore.

These growths are called galls and you can find three different kinds on these goldenrod alone. There are other galls with different shapes, sizes and colors found on the stems and leaves of all types of plants.

It was during a biology lab class where I first learned what the large spherical masses on goldenrod stems were and we opened them up to see what was inside. Galls are actually caused by an insect larva burrowing into the plant, which then responds by growing extra plant tissue around that larva. Inside this ball, the larva can be protected and fed, and it will remain there, growing, until it emerges in its adult form or something damages it.

Goldenrod Gall Flies make the spherical galls on goldenrod stems that are also known as ball galls. It turns out this is an apt name for a very specialized insect. This insect usually completes its entire life cycle on and next to the same small area of one or two varieties of goldenrod. These flies lay their eggs in the spring and early summer. The larva will remain in the gall throughout the entire summer. Take a closer look at these goldenrods when the stems are still green and you may see them then. During late fall, before it goes dormant for winter, the larva chews a tunnel into the walls of the gall that it will emerge from in the spring.

As summer turns to fall, the goldenrod stems and galls turn brown, but they also become significantly easier to find as those stems are one of the few left standing throughout the winter.

The galls in these fields are an important part of a thriving community of animals. Frequently, birds, beetles and wasps will find these galls and eat the larva from the inside. Woodpeckers can find those convenient tunnels and with a quick jab break through the last remaining layer of plant tissue, stick their long tongue inside and suck out the larva. There are wasps that regularly prey on these larvae. The adult wasps lay their eggs inside the gall tissue. When their eggs hatch, the wasp larva feeds on the fly larva. The next spring, instead of a fly emerging from that gall, a wasp makes its way out. Not great if you are the fly, but I’m sure the wasps enjoy the free room and board.

Goldenrod bunch gall in the winter. Photos by Jeff Tome

I find the longer, elliptical galls on goldenrod stems made by the Goldenrod Gall Moth less often. They work in much the same way as the fly larva. Both need a full year to complete their life cycle.

It was years later when I learned about the third kind of gall on goldenrod, because I just assumed it was a normal bunch of leaves. This gall is made by an entirely different insect, but don’t worry, there is a continuing theme when it comes to naming these critters. Enter the Goldenrod Bunch Gall Midge. They lay eggs on a leaf bud and cause the leaves to grow into a flower-like cluster. This cluster of leaves provides shelter and food for them and a host of other tiny, crawling and flying critters. Despite the presence of so many goldenrod invaders, often multiple on individual plants, the goldenrod doesn’t seem to be negatively affected.

There has been a lot of brown this winter and it can start feeling repetitive or mundane. When faced with a less dynamic landscape, especially one that I am frequently exposed to, it’s easy for me to lose interest in my surroundings and focus on the act of moving forward. It’s a consistent goal of mine to remind myself to spend some time exploring the places I skip over, and even though I sometimes forget, it’s always a joy to remember how many interesting things are quietly happening in the least obvious places.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345. Chelsea Jandreau is a Nature Educator at ACNC.


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