Posts Tagged ‘nature trails’

“They’re Like Little Green Brains”

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“Monkey Brain!”

It happens every fall; I walk up from a cave tour and come across a group waiting for their tour. One of them sees my uniform and name tag and comes to me with a question mark floating over his or her head. As the guest says, “I have a question for you,” others in the group lean in. It seems they also would like to hear the answer to the forthcoming question. Having been through this for many autumn seasons now, I already have a pretty good idea of what the question is going to be. I respond, “What’s your question?” and the guest says, “There are these little. . .green. . . things on the ground that look like. . . monkey brains or something. What are they?”

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“It looks like an old banana peel…”

 

These “monkey brains” are one of the two tree features that inspire questions each fall at Lost River Cave, the other one is a long brown pod that is often described as looking like an old banana peel. I’d like to shed a little light on these fall ground decorations and the trees that produce them.

 

 

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Osage Orange Tree at Lost River Cave

First of all, the “monkey brains” the fruit of a tree known as the Osage Orange (Malcura pomifera). The fruit is often referred to as a hedge apple. This tree was used profusely as a hedge row tree both for the purposes of being a windbreak as well as a cattle fence before the wide availability of barbed wire. I have heard it said that to build an Osage Orange hedge, you dig a trench, line up the hedge apples in the trench, cover them, then walk away. The shoots of this tree can grow 3-6 feet in a single year, so before long you had a thick hedge row with twisted intertwining trunks. Making it especially useful as a fence are its short, stout spines present on the branches. The fruit is not poisonous and can be eaten by humans, but, and I’ve not tested this myself, apparently it tastes absolutely awful. When exposed to frost the taste improves and becomes “cucumber-like” which to me is still absolutely awful, but to each his/her own. The wood has been considered very useful. It resists rot, has a tight grain, and is dense therefore it makes excellent tool handles, tree nails, and fence posts. It is also an excellent wood for making bows. In fact the French name for the tree is “bois d’arc,” which means “bow-wood.” The fruit of the tree was long believed to be a repellent for spiders and insects, and studies have found that an extract from the fruit indeed is an effective insect repellent.

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Honey Locust Tree, notice the thorns on the right of the trunk.

Our other interesting tree is easy to spot once you know its distinguishing characteristic. That would be the gigantic, sharp, scary looking thorns that emerge from the trunk of the Gleditsia triacanthos, or “Honey locust.” In the past, the thorns have actually been used as nails. The wood of this tree is very high quality, but isn’t used often, probably because people don’t like working with a tree which has thorns that can puncture tractor tires. The seed pods that catch people’s eyes on the trails this time of year are where the “honey” part of this tree’s name come from. They contain a thick, green, very sweet pulp inside that was used as food by Native Americans and can be fermented to make beer. The seeds in the pulp have even been roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

No wonder the tree is covered in thorns larger than my hand. It has fruit growing on it that can be made into both beer and coffee.

So, that’s a wrap on the two most asked about trees at Lost River Cave. Come on down and get acquainted with them for yourself. We have wonderful nature trails to hike, and while you’re here, take a cave tour as well.

For lots more information on what we have to offer, find us online at lostrivercave.com, and follow us on facebook.

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On White Squirrels: No, Not Albino

The whispering started again. I was not surprised as I had seen this behavior dozens if not hundreds of times before. I knew that my talk on the geology of the blue hole at Lost River Cave was about to take a back seat. It usually starts with one person quietly and politely nudging someone they came with, then whispering while pointing behind me. Next it spreads, more nudging and pointing and before long the planned speech has been completely upstaged by Flake, one of our resident white squirrels. 

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I’ve learned, and now when it starts I will say, without turning around, “If you look behind me, you will spot one of our white squirrels.” The first question is, “How did you know it was there?” and then the Frequently Asked Questions start rolling.

A popular site in Bowling Green, KY especially on the campus of Western Kentucky University, and here at Lost River Cave, are our white squirrels. When I was in college I heard many ridiculous explanations of their origins. Some said it was an experiment in the biology labs, others said the fault was with the chemistry or physics students doing bizarre experiments. My all time favorite put the blame for the white squirrels on a grand art project by students at the art department at the university. 

The real explanation? Nobody can give a perfect explanation of the white squirrels, but there are several factors that could come into play that help explain our population of white squirrels.

To head off the usual first question, none of the white squirrels I have seen at Lost River Cave are albinos, they all have dark eyes, not pink ones. Tree squirrels have a large amount of variability in coat colors, one of those variations is the white coat. Generally in nature the white coat is selected against because it is not good for concealment in a tree canopy. In settings where there are few natural predators, like the urban setting around Bowling Green, white squirrels have an extra chance of surviving. It has also been proposed that the white squirrels are able to blend in somewhat in areas with lots of white buildings and light colored concrete. Finally, white squirrels being less common around the world than squirrels of a different color, they often get “encouraged” to survive by people. In some towns, they have actually made an effort to remove squirrels that were not white in order to increase the white squirrel populations. That has not happened here, but I know from experience that Flake attracts the attention of guests who bribe him to pose for a picture with treats that his poor grey cousins don’t get.

Fortunately for those who are curious about the white squirrels, our most well known white squirrel at Lost River Cave likes to hang out in an area easily accessible by guests. As you head down the trail towards our big bridge, just as you start to walk under a tree canopy is Flake’s favorite hangout. These last few weeks in the afternoon I have seen him perched on a dead branch of an eastern red cedar there working on opening a walnut. 

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For more information on white squirrel populations you can go here.

And if you’d like to come meet Flake, come visit us at Lost River Cave