A glance over my right shoulder showed me I was probably going to make it off the trail before dark. Probably. The sun was just barely visible through the trees, its last rays of light for the day shining off the hedgerow to my left.
I was hiking, but really I just needed and wanted the exercise as I navigated the trails of this familiar nature preserve. I was moving quickly, knowing I had a mile to go. No worries–I knew I would make it. Plus, my phone has a flashlight, right?
Suddenly I brought my pace to a small fraction of what it was. I’d seen something unusual, and I had to decide if it was worth going back to check it out. Of course it was. Again, I had a flashlight if I needed it.
Backtracking 20 or so feet, I found myself looking at what I thought was a gall formed on a eastern red cedar tree. A gall is an abnormal growth, often appearing as a spherical mass on branches and leaves. They’re normally caused by parasites or even bacteria and fungus.
The more I looked at it, the less I thought it was a gall. For that matter, the less I thought the tree–a shrub, really–was an eastern red cedar. It looked like some other juniper, perhaps, that found itself planted well outside of the residential yards in which it normally grew, its seed dropped by a bird years ago.
Back to the gall, er, thingy. Tiny little bells were ringing in the back of my head; I knew what this was, but couldn’t pull the necessary levers in my brain to bring the answer to mind.
The sun, without uttering a sound, said one last “goodnight” as I stood there pondering. Taking advantage of those remaining rays, I snapped a few pictures using my phone. Before I walked away a moment later, the sun was below the treeline and I was officially walking in the dusk, living my best crepuscular life.
Fun fact: Animals that are active during the hours of darkness, are, of course, nocturnal. Those active during the day are diurnal. Those active during those brief times of light before the sunrise and after the sunset? The term is crepuscular. Really, I’m not making that up.
I did, for the record, make it back to the parking lot without the need for a flashlight.
As I sat there in the car cooling off, I pulled the computer, I mean phone, from my pocket. My search term was “cedar tree gall,” and within a few seconds I had my answer. I hadn’t been looking at a gall at all; rather, I’d seen an example of cedar apple rust. It was a fungus. I’d seen it before, but not in this form. Within a few days or weeks, the growth I’d seen would turn into what looked like a gooey pom-pom hanging off of the tree, its color a beautiful rusty orangish brown.
“Gall at all” is pretty fun to say aloud. I recommend it.
The natural world really is incredible, and I’m constantly blown away by the forms it takes. I’m going to need to walk that trail again soon, hopefully catching Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae Schwein in all of its glory. (Did I look up the Latin? You betcha.)
Want to know more? This short article has a lot of great info–check it out!