Saturday, August 15, 2009
A Search for Limestone Lovers
It was way too hot for a long hike today, and the river was writhing with weekenders' wakes, so I went for an easy walk. The trail I chose is in the Warren County part of Moreau Lake State Park, across the Hudson, along an old service road that provides access to Spier Falls Dam. By early afternoon the woods to the west shaded the trail quite nicely, and a gentle breeze made the walking very pleasant. Goldenrod and White Snakeroot bloomed alongside, and I recognized the foliage of the New England Aster to come. There was Common Mullein, too, and Spotted Knapweed, typical introduced inhabitants of the disturbed soils that line old roads.
But I had a goal to get off the road and explore the limestone outcroppings that distinguish this part of the park. These outcroppings create calcareous soils that support plant species seldom found in the rest of the park. My specific quest was for American Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), which I had found here several years ago and hadn't visited since. How someone with my poor eyesight ever saw this tiny flower, I do not know. But somehow I did, and returning to the original site, I found it again today. (Photo above) Remarkably aromatic, the leaves of this plant have had numerous folk-medicine uses, including as insect repellent. If I didn't have such a strong aversion to picking any wildflower, I would have crushed some leaves and rubbed them on my skin today, the mosquitoes were so bad.
My next discovery was Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), and this was a new one for me. I almost ignored it, assuming it was just Red Clover, but something told me to take a closer look. This flower has quite a different shape than the two other milkworts I know, Fringed Polygala and Racemed Milkwort. None of them have milky sap, despite their family name. Farmers once believed that feeding on them was supposed to increase a cow's milk production.
Exploring the flat rocky areas where the milkwort and pennyroyal grew, I kept seeing this snowy white aster-like flower on short (8-12 inch) stems with stiff spiky leaves. Hmmm, I thought, is this some kind of abbreviated Heath Aster? Or what? The closest match I could find in my Newcomb's was Upland White Aster (Aster ptarmacoides), but when later I went on the web to find more information about this plant, I discovered it may not be an aster at all, but a goldenrod. A goldenrod!? Who knew? And the USDA plant info web site gave it another scientific name: Oligoneuron ptarmacoides. So much for scientific names as a way to end confusion. USDA also listed a bunch of states where this plant (if that's what this is) is endangered or even extirpated. New York doesn't list it as rare, but I bet it's not all that common. It likes dry open areas with limey soil. Like where I walked today.
Let's see, what else did I find among those rocks? These knobby too-red-to-be-real little lichens -- (Cladonia cristatella) -- were studding the rocks where mosses and strawberries also grew. This is one of the few lichens to have a common name and it's a good one: British Soldiers. Although I think of British soldiers as having red coats, not red hats.
And here was a nice red fungus: Suillus spraguei or Painted Bolete. I've heard this mushroom is edible, but it wasn't worth picking just one.
A sweet treat to end my adventures today, this tiny baby bird was scurrying along the path, its mom (or its dad?) attempting to herd it into the shrubbery and away from my sight, while the other (invisible) parent squawked very loud in the bushes. The adult I saw briefly was colored much like this infant, light grey-brown above, soft yellow below, with white wing bars. Of course, it wouldn't sit still for a photo. Maybe a vireo? Or a female warbler? I'll bet some of my birding buddies will know.
Update, August 19: I received a note from New York State Chief Botanist Steve Young about that aster/goldenrod mentioned above. He writes: "That could definitely be Oligoneuron ptarmicoides since it likes limey soils along rivers. There is a large population in limey shale along the Hoosic River near Schaghticoke. It is on our watch list and used to be considered rare, but there is a ton of it in the limestone barrens near Watertown."