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— Bryan

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Your latest What’s This? nature challenge was perched on snow here in eastern Vermont on January 16, 2012. Name it and be eligible to win $5 off any of my nature outings or workshops. Submit your answer in the comments section below. From the correct answers, I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday. (Fear not – I won’t publish wrong answers; so guess boldly, my friends.)


american-beech-flowers-fruit-cupuleAdded on January 25: We have a winner. Many of you correctly identified this as the “husk” of an American Beech fruit.

This particular “husk” (more on terminology below) is missing one of its four “wings” (if you will), which was supposed to make this particular What’s This? challenge a bit more, well, challenging. Also, the husk is wide open. Most of the time they look like what I’ve got pictured to the right at the bottom.

In any event, Victoria Davis was my randomly selected winner from among the 25 of you who got it right, all of whom are now listed below (including Sara Backer’s customary and wonderful honorable mention).

But, first, let’s get right with our fruity terminology. Or more to the point: What’s with those spines?

The spines originate on the female flower of an American Beech. Beech are monoecious, which means that each tree has separate male and female flowers (pictured on top there to the right). Surrounding the base of a female flower is set of slender bracts called an involucre. As the fertilized flower matures, the involucre fuses and grows into a spiny husk called a cupule surrounding two (edible) nuts – the beech nuts. The whole mess is actually called a fruit (the middle image), which in American Beech opens in the fall to drop its nuts. Black Bear, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and Human Beings are among the creatures that eat those nuts. Eventually, the empty cupule (the bottom image to the right), falls from the tree.

So there you have it. What’s This? No. 22 is three quarters of an American Beech cupule, wide open and still armed with its spiky involucre. The ever-creative Sara Backer, a regular contributor to What’s This?, has a different take on this challenge:

“On the streets of Bali, you can buy this miniature glass figurine which symbolizes the power of fire in metamorphosis from life to death. Look closely in the center of the flames and you’ll see a triangular face adjacent to an upside down skull. (Bali is Hindu, not Muslim, and cremation is the only acceptable form of corpse disposal.)”

Discover all my What’s This? challenges here. I particularly like Sara’s response to What’s This? No. 21.

And if you like what you’re seeing here on the blog, sign up for my occasional email newsletter, Natural Selections, which brings you breaking news from the frontiers of wildlife science and from my own adventures in wild places. You’ll also get first alerts on my (now limited) calendar of birding trips, workshops and other events.

26 comments
  1. Carol Yarnell says:

    beech nut

  2. Ben Freeman says:

    The image looks to be of the inside of a Beech seed husk (Fagus grandifolia).

  3. Beechnut shell, by the looks

  4. Victoria Davis says:

    Beechnut “casing”

  5. Billie Davis says:

    Beechnut

  6. Christine Sibona says:

    A spent beechnut?

  7. Kristen Lindquist says:

    Blown beech nut husk?

  8. Evergreen Erb says:

    This is a comment about #12……I was going through your old quiz pictures, and when this one came up, I jumped up and shouted…”wow…a Petoskey stone!” I spent eight weeks every summer for eight years on a lake in Michigan called Torch Lake. It runs for 18 miles north and south alongside of Grand Traverse Bay, and is between Traverse City to the south and Charlevoix to the north. Torch Lake is an unbelievably spectacular lake that is three colors of vibrant blue green, much like the Caribbean. From this wonderful lake of my memories and dreams, we used to collect Petoskey stones all the time. I still have several and collected a few when I went back for a camp reunion fifty years later. The lake was as gorgeously colored as I remembered! What a great surprise to see this on your quiz! Sorry this answer isn’t for this question, but my excitement is boundless!

  9. dtaron says:

    Basal bracts of a beech nut.

  10. ali says:

    okay…my closest guess is an open beech nut.

  11. Zara says:

    Beech seed pod shell

  12. Helen Rabin says:

    Beechnut husk?

  13. Kevin Hemeon says:

    Beech nut husk?

  14. Sara Backer says:

    On the streets of Bali, you can buy this miniature glass figurine which symbolizes the power of fire in metamorphosis from life to death. Look closely in the center of the flames and you’ll see a triangular face adjacent to an upside down skull. (Bali is Hindu, not Muslim, and cremation is the only acceptable form of corpse disposal.)

  15. Is it the husk of a beechnut?

  16. Doug McGrady says:

    No. 22 is a Beech nut husk

  17. Brian Parsons says:

    The outer “husk” (spiny involucre) that surrounds the fruits (Beechnuts) of American Beech – Fagus grandifolia

  18. Cindy says:

    It’s a beech nut hull.

  19. Sue Cloutier says:

    Beech burr, seeds gone?

  20. Cathy Stewart says:

    It’s the shell of a beechnut.

  21. Jeffrey Allen says:

    American Beech seed husk

  22. Ann Lewis says:

    Hmm. . .an open seed pod of some nut tree/shrub like beech or beaked hazelnut??

  23. Mark Rahill says:

    Beechnut husk

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