Arboretum Paths: In the forest, a touch of red beckons

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, December 16, 2015

forest finds: Amanita mushrooms nestle among fallen leaves in the Swamp Forest Educational Exhibit’s central stream channel. Photo by Patricia Drackett

forest finds: Amanita mushrooms nestle among fallen leaves in the Swamp Forest Educational Exhibit’s central stream channel.
Photo by Patricia Drackett

Somehow we have made it midway through the month of December and lately I’ve been marveling at the occasional bursts of scarlet erupting in the forest against the backdrop of a somber color palette. Much like the bright red accent a skilled interior designer might use to “pop” against a room’s neutral color scheme, or the bright red bow one may add as a finishing touch on the Christmas wreath adorning a front door – in contrast to winter’s subdued tones, these rosy accents offer a pleasant contrast.

Scarlet leaves on winged sumac trees grace the woodland edges along local highways. These flaming, intensely red plants appear almost artificial. Also called shining sumac or flame-leaf sumac, the small deciduous trees may be considered ungainly and wild by some, but are strikingly attractive to those who are dedicated fans of Mississippi’s native plant species.

In addition to brilliant fall color, sumac has flower clusters that draw a profuse variety of insects to sip their nectar such as native bees. The fall berries are devoured by wildlife such as wild turkey, quail, and pheasant, and more than 200 species of songbirds relish its berries. The tree is also a larval host for the luna moth. Early settlers used the fruit for jelly making and to make a tart sumac lemonade.

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On a forest stroll, the red berries of American Holly and Yaupon holly stand out in stark contrast to evergreen leaves. I’ve noticed a few holly trees that for some reason have shed a good deal of their berries. The small red fruits are nestled in the leaves on the forest floor, hopefully waiting to be devoured by some hungry forest creature.

One of my favorite plants in early winter is Elliot’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliotii). Its brilliant burgundy-red leaves are glowing now along the Arboretum pathways. Sun promotes the best coloration. Elliot’s blueberry’ open, lacy form and delicate green branches make this shrub an attractive year-round addition to your garden.

A few days ago we spotted several young Amanita muscari mushrooms emerging in the intermittent stream channel of the Swamp Forest Exhibit. Known as fly agaric, these mushrooms are covered with characteristic raised white warts, and are common to the coastal areas.

Amanita begins its emergence as small knobs. These will quickly unfurl into tall parasols in only a day or two. Their coloring and dramatic form makes them a frequently depicted mushroom in fairy tale landscapes.

Fly agaric is charming when it occurs in a grouping. Here, you are usually able to see examples of the mushroom during its many distinctive stages. Even in the cold of winter, it will put on a show, often appearing along the edges of our pathways and service road. Although this is a strikingly beautiful group of mushrooms, these are some of the most toxic species in the world.
Among the brown and gray tones of the winter landscape, one is more apt to notice the many species of lichens that festoon tree trunks. One species that is particularly attractive is called the “Christmas lichen” because of its red coloration. I’ve seen this circular lichen present on the trunks of several of the cypress trees along the Arboretum’s Pond Journey.
Occasionally our young forest rewards me with a burgundy-red sweetgum leaf – waiting on the hood of my car at the end of a long day. Even when I’m plum tuckered out, I can always spare a few seconds to appreciate the leaf’s beauty, structure and mere existence.

Prescribed burn demonstrations will be held Thursdays and Fridays in January and February if the environmental conditions are favorable. If you are interested in observing or assisting with a burn, call the office at 601-799-2311 and ask for Terry Johnson to be placed on a call list.

Mark your calendar for our popular 8th annual Forge Day event to be held on Saturday, January 30. Blacksmithing and metalworking demonstrations take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children under 12. Members attend free.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information, call the office at (601) 799-2311 or see our website

By Patricia Drackett