Last Sunday I made the estimate that my bad wheel was good enough to get me as far as I needed into the mountains to find a few morels to go with the asparagus that is beginning to emerge in my garden. It was a wonderful day for a hike, so while my bride was cleaning the winter debris from her hosta beds, I headed up into the mountains. I rarely go for a jaunt in the mountains where I am not delighted and surprised by something new. This hike was no different.
About a mile into my journey, my Achilles tendonitis told me that, once again, I had overestimated what I could do, and I had best turn the bus around and get myself back to the truck. So, that’s what I did. Unfortunately for me, I came back with no mushrooms. But I did return with some interesting chunks of mud, which I found in the middle of a well traveled trail. I hope the picture I took gives some reader an “ah-ha” moment, and they will let me know what they are.
My first thought was that they were some sort of cocoon or nest for the larval form of a bug or insect. But, why would they be in the center of a beat down trail? Each time, I only found a half of the ball. And I found eight or 10 of them, so it was no isolated thing. I believe they are just too large to be a nest or cocoon. (If they really are nests of some kind, we need to get ready for a new alien invasion. Giant snails, anyone?)
I know this year we are supposed to be inundated by locusts or cicadas, but I think it is too early for them, and, besides, as far as I know, the larval stage for the cicadas lives deep underground, with no need for a cocoon or nest.
Something keeps nagging at me, telling me I have seen this before. I am beginning to think these mud balls have nothing to do with an insect or bug at all. I called a friend who knows a lot about horses, because folks riding horses and mules frequent the trail I was hiking. She couldn’t think of any reason why the mud balls would have anything to do with horses or mules.
It seems possible that the smooth inner surface of these mud balls is the result of some repetitive motion. For instance, suppose someone is riding a mule up the trail a day or two after some rain, and the mud and dirt splatters against the animal or some of the gear, and the mud ball hangs there, jiggling along, until the weight of it causes it to fall onto the ground and break open. That seems reasonable.
I am certain one of our readers will know how this mud ball comes to be. If the answer is obvious, then I shall be risking making a fool of myself once again. But, at my age, one more instance of that is not going to matter.
In the meantime, you should know that the wildflowers in the mountain are beginning to burst forth and the purple and yellow violets are everywhere. The mayapples, though not yet blooming, are going strong and I saw rattlesnake plantain and pipsissewa, or spotted wintergreen.
If I had a favorite wildflower, it would probably be the small wild orchid, or showy orchis. I saw a lot of them. The foliage is well developed, but no blooms yet. Further down the mountain, next to the spring where I get water, I did find two that were beginning to show a touch of color in the bud, but it will be another few days before they take center stage in the woodlot.
You may have to put up with a few ticks and spiders, but nothing beats a walk in the woods this time of year. I hope you get a chance to get out and enjoy springtime in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I think I’ll go call the orthopedist.