Every year from late September into early October a diversity of plants, fungi, and animals find their unique expressions of autumn change.
After a rain shower, fall mushrooms like boletes and amanitas suddenly pop up under the trees in our yards as if they’ve waited for months for the weather to cool off. The leaves of tupelos and red maples turn a beautiful crimson as the trees recycle nutrients in a spectacular seasonal display. Our latest flowering native perennials showcase a profusion of brilliant yellow goldenrods and the violet hues of New England asters.
Eastern coyote families, their pups near independence, are sometimes heard yipping and howling in response to emergency sirens. The familiar and summery ospreys have left for more tropical climes. An array of other birds from broad-winged hawks to ruby-crowned kinglets are continually moving through our area from their breeding grounds in the great northern boreal forests.
During this season within a season, mammals such as white-tailed deer, raccoons, and Virginia opossums, and birds are fattening up on the mast (fruits and nuts) of shrubs and trees. Nearly all land birds feed on mast foods at some point throughout the year. These foods are especially crucial for migratory birds to fuel their long flights to their wintering grounds.
The abundance of fruit begins in earnest in July with fat raspberries and blackberries overwhelming their stems. A few weeks later, low and highbush blueberries, along with their close relatives of black huckleberries, are a favorite of wildlife and people.
As for nuts, white oaks drop their acorns every fall, while red oaks and the closely related black and scarlet oaks typically drop their mast every other year.
In centuries past, American chestnuts provided a bumper crop of tasty, starchy mast for roving brigades of passenger pigeons, both now sadly absent from our landscape. The reproductive fates of plants determine the survival of most of the terrestrial vertebrate life on Earth.
There are many other lesser known, wild, edible mast sources for wildlife and humans alike, despite the generally droughty, nutrient-poor soils of the Cape. Many of these plant species, like those above, are easily cultivated in your yard as well. Some species need both male and female plants to set fruit, so check with your garden center or a native plant horticulturalist.
Sun-loving species typically produce the largest amount of mast, and thrive in areas with less canopy cover. A bounty of American elderberry fruits ripen in August, a rich source of vitamin C and antioxidants. Please note that other parts of this plant are poisonous to humans. This tall shrub species is commonly seen throughout HCT’s Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve.
Another common species on any upland open space is black cherry, our native wild cherry tree. The small cherries start to ripen in late August, a prolific source of carbohydrates for migrating songbirds. The fruits are often sour for human taste. The closely related shrub of chokecherry is also a very important food source for gray catbirds, Northern cardinals, blue jays, hermit thrushes, and more. Chokecherry fruits ripen over the summer.
Then, of course, there is the beach plum, another species in the cherry family, inhabiting the wild and lonely dunes of the Cape. Its trunks deformed by the unforgiving wind, they send up suckers to hold the sandy dunes in place. The beach plum’s blueish fruits ripen in late summer, and are up to an inch in diameter, offering dedicated pickers an opportunity to create a delicious preserve. Please note that the pits of all cherries contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic to humans, however the flesh is safe to eat. Wildlife are unaffected by the poison.
Many of our native vines produce large amounts of fruit that birds love. These can include poison ivy (its berries are high in lipids), catbrier, Virginia creeper, and groundnut. All are present in varying abundance on local conservation lands, except for groundnut, which can actually be found at the Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve.
Some native trees and shrubs offer fruits that must undergo a freeze and thaw cycle to be most palatable to songbirds. These fruits ensure a source of winter food for resident species like Eastern bluebirds and cedar waxwings, who have an almost entirely frugivorous diet. Species with fruits in this category include American holly, cranberry viburnum, and mountain ash. These species are great choices for planting in your yard.
There are many more mast-producing trees and shrubs to consider adding to your yard. To help nourish our local wildlife, the Garden Club of Harwich has been promoting the National Wildlife Federation’s certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program. The Garden Club of Harwich encourages homeowners to enroll in the program and create more wildlife-friendly backyards. Learn more by clicking here.
For a list and photos provided by the Town Conservation Department and Town Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski of native trees and shrubs that you can plant in your yard, please click here.
Photos by Gerry Beetham
Story by Tyler Maikath, HCT’s Outreach & Stewardship Coordinator
Tyler studied Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island and developed an interest in birds, their natural histories, and conservation. After graduation, Tyler worked a variety of seasonal positions focused primarily on seabird and shorebird conservation with Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program and Mass Wildlife’s Buzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project. In 2009, Tyler earned his Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies at Antioch University of New England.