Thursday, April 30, 2009

Up to the Shadblow Orchard

Shadblow in bloom in the Palmertown Mountains

The forecast was for wind and rain this afternoon (oh please please please let it be so, we are so dry), but the morning dawned cool and sunny.  Quick, I said to my husband, let's hike to the Hudson overlook while the Shadblow are still in bloom and before a rainstorm brings the blossoms down.  There's a gently sloping open woods up there in the Palmertown Mountains, where there are so many Shadblow trees it almost looks like an orchard.

So off we went and up, up, up, stopping along the way to catch our breath and admire the beauty all around us.  The trail was strewn with flowers like a bridal path:  Bluets by the thousands, violets of several kinds, and even some newly opened strawberry blossoms.  The most prevalent violet today was the Ovate-leaved (Viola fimbriatula), a deep, deep purple flower with fuzzy stems.  And oval-shaped leaves.  Tiny brand-new plants of this violet mingled with the myriad Bluets along the trail.

The trail was strewn with Bluets and Ovate-leaved Violets

Ovate-leaved Violet close-up

Here are two more flowers in bloom along the trail today:

Long-spurred Violets (Viola rostrata) are pale with a deep-colored center.  And a long spur.

Sessile-leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) has leaves that clasp the stem.

While we were up on the mountain the clouds rolled in, the wind came fast behind them, and drops of rain began to fall.  We hurried down expecting to get drenched.  But we only got a sprinkle.  Darn!  I can't remember a spring as dry as this.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More Images from Today's Paddle

A few more beauties that caught my eye as I paddled the Hudson today:

This pink-flowered Trailing Arbutus grows where the earth is red.  Is there iron in the soil, and could the presence of that mineral affect the color of the blossoms?  I don't know.

The baby leaves of an oak, just opening

Partridge Berries bejewel the bank beneath a woodpecker-augured tree.

New bright green leaves (I don't know what plant) crowd into a crack in the rocks where Wintergreen grows

Spring Regains its Senses

The rocks around Bear's Bathtub

Sweet soft Spring is back at last!  After too many too-hot-even-for-summer days, today dawned cool and clear.  A perfect day for a paddle, with the sun's warmth feeling welcome, and a bit of a breeze to set the reflections a-shimmer.  I  carried my canoe down through the woods to launch near Bear's Bathtub, and paddled downstream to Juniper Point, then upstream to Rippled Rocks and around Three Pine Island.  Once again, I had the river all to myself, on a day that was made in Heaven.

It's hard to convey what bliss it is, moving through cool dark water,  mossy green banks spangled with Bluets,  Shadblow floating like clouds amid the surrounding forest.  As I slipped along close to shore, the sunlit ripples played on the rocks just under the water's surface.  The rocks in this stretch of the Hudson above Sherman Island Dam are really beautiful.  A kind of metamorphic rock called  "gneiss," they are sometimes striped dark and light, sometimes spangled like granite, sometimes translucent pink or white like quartz.  Very "gneiss," indeed.  Especially when their colors are intensified by water.

Sunlit ripples play on the underwater rocks

The Early Low Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are just coming into bloom, as are Round-leaved Gooseberries (Ribes rotundifolia) and a kind of white currant I think must have escaped from someone's garden.  I gather handfuls of their luscious fruit in summer, when it dangles over the water as I paddle by.  Sometimes I find a few blueberries, but never  have I tasted a wild gooseberry.  The birds always get them long before they're ripe.   

Early Saxifrage grows on the rocky bank at Juniper Point

I beached my boat to explore the woods around Juniper Point, but there wasn't much woods today.  I don't know why the water was so high.  We've had little rain this spring and the snow melted long ago, but in all the low spots today, the river flooded way back into the woods.  I did find some Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla) growing along a stream (what an unpleasant-sounding name for such a pretty plant!). 

The pretty white flowers of Toothwort are touched with lavender.

I also found one spindly little bush of American Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis), with only a single pair of greenish-yellow blossoms dangling down.  This native honeysuckle is the earliest bloomer of its species.

 American Fly Honeysuckle, one of our native honeysuckles and an early bloomer

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Running off to the River

Retirement is great.  I may be poorer, but I'm rich in opportunity.  A lovely summery morning?  I'm off to the Hudson instead of off to work.  How I love weekday mornings, when I have the river all to myself.  The stretch of river that runs between Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams is so pristine, with forested mountains that come straight down to the water and tumbled boulder banks where minks can hide.  If it weren't for the odd beer can and crumpled bait box (which I always throw in my boat), I could almost pretend I was the very first paddler to pass that way.

The banks were particularly lovely today, with mossy green patches strewn with Bluets (Houstonia caerulea).  Such pretty pale blue flowers, centered with yellow, they seem to float on invisible stems, holding their blooms horizontally, as if to reflect the sky.  They'll have their first full flush of bloom through May, when masses drift like stars above the grass, but I'll go on seeing a few all summer into fall, right up to frost.

The banks were also ablaze with Sweet Gale shrubs (Myrica gale).  Sweet Gale comes in male or female varieties, the male with golden pollen-bearing catkins, the female with vivid, fluffy pink pistils that looked quite radiant today in the morning sun.  Apparently, the shrubs can change their sexes from year to year.  Their leaves bear tiny dots of fragrant resin; it's delightful to crush a few leaves to inhale as you paddle by.  I've heard that these crushed leaves can also be used as an insect repellent.  Sure would smell better than DEET.  

Sweet Gale catkins (male)

Sweet Gale pistillate (female) flowers

Another fragrant plant in bloom today was Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), not a fern at all but a flowering shrub related to Sweet-gale and with a similar scent when you crush the leaves.  These plants have both the male catkins and the female pistillate puff growing on the same stem.  I'd never noticed that female flower before, little bit of a thing and kind of pretty, so rosy red.

Sweet Fern, with male catkins and one red pistillate (female) puff.  Last year's leaves still curl on the stem.

Lots of birds were making music today, including two of the loveliest singers:  Winter Wren ("I sing so ch-e-e-e-e-rfully, cause I'm so ch-e-e-e-e-rful, and I'm so ch-e-e-e-e-rful that I just can't stop") and White-throated Sparrow ("Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody").  I also heard the bird that keeps saying, over and over again: "Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha."  My blog friend Nature Girl told me the name of this bird just yesterday, and I've already forgotten it.  I'll bet somebody out there knows what it is and will tell me in a comment.

Postscript:  I typed "bird song pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha" into Google, and the answer came right away.  Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Isn't Google grand?

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Preview of Coming Attractions

My blog friend, Nature Girl (, drove down from Newcomb today to tromp with me through some of my haunts.  Spring up there in the Adirondacks is at least a couple of weeks behind Saratoga, so she was growing hungry for an eyeful of spring ephemerals.  And boy, are they coming fast!  And disappearing just as fast too, what with this crazy summer-like heat.  Ninety degrees again today.  And no rain.  I hope this is not a pattern.  At any rate, we saw lots of flowers  on a walk through Skidmore woods, including several Nature Girl said were firsts for her.  I hope they were some consolation for the Trout Lilies being mostly spent.  Believe it or not, the Bloodroot was still glorious, and a few Hepatica were still holding on.


The Shadblow trees opened their buds today, showing drifts of white against the blue sky.  Down on the ground, the Large-flowered Trilliums opened their snow-white blooms by the dozen, and tiny Dwarf Ginseng peeked up from among the leaf litter.  Two more violets -- Downy Yellow (Viola pubescens) and Long-spurred (V. rostrata) -- made their appearance.

Large-flowered Bellwort

As we left the woods to walk back to our car, we passed this lovely patch of Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia),  also called Windflower.  A parting gift from the woods to my visiting friend.  I hope Nature Girl enjoyed her preview of what will be blooming up north.  In the weeks to come, she will get to visit these flowers all over again.

Wood Anemone, also called Windflower

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Twinleaf's Moment Arrives!

I found it!  I found it!  The Twinleaf flower I was hoping to glimpse during its brief moment of bloom.  The exceptional heat today (yes, it reached 90 degrees on my thermometer) forced one bud to burst into bloom, and I was lucky enough to get to Yaddo today in time to see it.  And get a better photo than I got last year.  And here it is.  Isn't it pretty?  And such an interesting leaf.  Like an angel's wing.

Better take a good look because you probably won't find it growing wild around here.  It's considered "threatened" in New York State, "endangered" in several others.  I'd like to plant it in my garden, but it needs limey soil and mine is pretty neutral.  I'm glad I know where it grows.

Yaddo is a famous artists' retreat at the eastern edge of Saratoga Springs and is most renowned for its sun-lit rose gardens and ornate garden statuary.  But it also has a lovely rock garden, shaded by ancient Norway spruces and devoted to woodland wildflowers, many of which I have never found in the wild.  Virginia Bluebells, Labrador Violet, Squirrel Corn, Crested Iris -- these are just a few of the pretty plants I visit there.  Last fall I  helped myself to seeds from Celandine Poppy and Black Cohosh and scattered them in my own shady garden.  Green sprouts are just coming up out there, and I'm not yet sure what they are.  Let's hope.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wildflower Nutology

The wildflower torrent is about to begin.  Today in the mid-70s, tomorrow approaching 90.  I've been watching a Twinleaf plant (Jeffersonia diphylla) in the Yaddo rock garden, hoping to catch it in bloom.  It seems there's about a five-minute window of opportunity to catch this flower in bloom, and with this hot weather, it will probably happen as soon as I turn my back.  It's got nice fat buds on it now.  Here's a photo of what it will look like (taken last year), in case I miss it.  

Okay.  I know I'm a nut.  Who else would lie in wait for a flower to bloom? But it's Twinleaf!  You don't find that one very often out in the woods.  So somebody planted this one in a garden.  So what?  It's still a native wildflower.  And the trip to Yaddo was not in vain.  I found a nice patch of Dog Violet (Viola conspersa) blooming out on the lawn, and a little earlier than expected.  So how do I know this is not just a Common Blue Violet?  First, it's a little smaller, its blooms are paler in color,  and if you look real close, you'll see that the leaves and flowers grow on a stem, not from a basal rosette.  And the leaf and flower stalks are encased in sharply toothed stipules.

Note the sharply toothed stipules of Dog Violet 

Details, details.  Why can't I just say ooh what a pretty flower and not have to know it's real name?  I guess I enjoy being struck with wonder at all the diversity that lies around us.  I'm afraid I'd miss out on that if I didn't get down on my elbows and knees, turn the leaves over, peer under petals, take a peek at the flowers' private parts to see if they're girls or boys -- or, often as not, both!  It's fun.  It's like solving puzzles.  And they say solving puzzles is good for old folks like me.  The tick bites, now, that's another matter.  Time to get out the DEET.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spring Along Bog Meadow Trail

I wish I could show you what it really looked like in Bog Meadow marsh today.  This photo offers only a pale approximation of how truly gorgeous it was:  the mounds and mounds of brilliant yellow Marsh Marigold,  backed by the vivid green of its heart-shaped leaves, surrounded by rich red stalks of Red Osier Dogwood.  But trying to get a good photo of Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) is like trying to take a photo of the sun.  At least with my little Canon point-and-shoot.  The flower's so brilliant a yellow, it blasts all detail away.  Shut down the exposure enough to capture the texture of the blossom, the leaves become almost black.  So this was a compromise.  At least you can get an idea.  Go find a marsh this week and see for yourself how incredibly lovely this wildflower is.  (The Bog Meadow Nature Trail can be accessed just east of Saratoga Springs off Route 29.)  One of the odd facts about this flower is that, for all its beauty, it has no petals. All that brilliant color comes from the sepals.

A good deal more subdued in its coloration is Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense).  Hundreds of millions of years ago, spore-bearing plants like these dominated much of the earth.  They still thrive in damp places like lake shores and marshes and along the sides of  Bog Meadow Nature Trail.  The little green Christmas-tree-looking stalk will grow to be almost three feet tall, with whorls of branches at the joints along the stem.  It's about six inches tall here in the photo.

 The pinky-brown spore stalks are separate and ephemeral, that is, they will disappear when their work of shedding spores is done.  That is, soon.  There were lots of them by the path today, their oddly pretty fertile surfaces colored from soft apricot to ruddy brown.  As a kid, I used to love popping these plants apart at their joints, then plugging them back together.  I still think it's pretty cool how a plant can do that.  

And here's the Northern White Violet (Viola pallens),  the species my mystery violet (see blog post for April 2) is not.  This one is smaller, its stems are smooth not downy, and it definitely has dark purple veining on its lower lip.  And its spur is white.  There was just this one along the path.  It's really a wonder I saw it.  I'm so glad I did.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Events in Skidmore Woods

Blue Cohosh flowers

The Skidmore woods was Earth Day festive today, with masses of dazzling Bloodroot spangling the forest floor and hundreds of Trout Lilies dangling their bright-yellow bells.  Blue Cohosh was up, purple stems crowned by clusters of greenish-brown flowers (the blue of its name comes from the blue of its late-summer berries/seeds).  Most of the Purple Trillium were still tucked away in their buds, but I found just one that was bowing its dark red head as if to honor our Earth.  Or hanging its head as if in sadness for what we humans have done to  harm our planet. (I tipped the blossom up to take its photo.)

The May Apple sprouts were shooting up, stout stalks enfolded by one or two pleated leaves, furled tight like collapsed umbrellas. 

Click on this photo to see the furry edge to the leaves and the pretty yellow bug at the base.

 Looking closely, I noticed what looked like a light green pea nestled between two leaves.  Gently moving the leaves apart, I found the flower bud.  This bud and its consequent flower and fruit will later be shaded from summer's sun by the twin parasols of its leaves, but today it was peeking out at the soft spring day, like a new-hatched chick from its nest. 

The May Apple plant puts on quite a show as the season progresses, spreading its large green leaves and crowding together in colonies that shade out all other plants.  It's elegant flower --one to each twin-leaved plant -- has six to nine waxy white petals and is hidden from view by the leaves.  The "apple" (actually, a berry) ripens to a soft velvety yellow in late summer.  This fruit has a pleasant fragrance,  but a rather insipid flavor.  All the rest of the plant is poisonous, as is the fruit when unripe.  One of its toxic chemicals, podophyllotoxin, is a source of drugs used to treat cancer.

As we bulldoze our woods for buildings, and surround our vacation "cabins" with manicured (read poisoned) lawns, May Apple's habitat (along with the plant's cancer-fighting toxin) grows scarcer and scarcer.  Just something to think about as we celebrate Earth Day 2009.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Flowers, Many Shapes

Here are a few more photos from my walk yesterday.  So many different ways a flower can form!

Flower buds of an Ash tree. I don't know whether Black or White Ash.  It was growing by the river.

Dutchman's Breeches:  How does a pollinator get inside? I think that yellow part opens up as the bloom matures.

Trout Lily:  Three petals, three sepals, all of them yellow.  Can you tell which is which?

Somebody told me this is Yellow-flowered Grass.  I tried to decipher a grass guidebook once and put it down more confused than enlightened.  So I'll just have to take that person's word about this plant.  I love the tousled hair of that blossom.  Looks like it just woke up.  Which it did.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Few Sweet Surprises

On a walk around Mud Pond yesterday, I found not a single wildflower in bloom.  And today dawned dark and chilly and threatening rain.  Why bother to go out, I thought, but then corrected myself: Dutchman's Breeches could be in bloom at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve.  And so they were.  And so were a bunch of other wonderful wildflowers, including one I never expected to find around here: Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale).  Both my Peterson's and Newcomb's guides tell me this flower blooms from Pennsylvania west to Minnesota, south to Kentucky.  Well, you guys, I found it here in Wilton, NY, and here are some photos to prove it:

Here's another flower most folks never find, but not because it doesn't bloom around here.  It's just that it's so itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny, it's pretty hard to see it.  And you have to walk around on really mucky ground to find it.  And then it doesn't even look like a flower.  It's called Golden Saxifrage or Water Carpet (Chrysosplenium americanum), and the plants sprawl in springy areas, forming a mat.  Luckily, my camera has a macro lens.  I have to take its picture and blow it up so I can see it.  And here's the photo I took so you can, too. (The actual flower is no more than one/eighth of an inch across.)

One more photo, just because it's so darn pretty: Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia). These are the yellowest violets I've ever seen, so intensely colored it's hard to get them in focus with my inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.  They were growing on a mossy, shaded bank by a stream, their bright lemon-yellow blossoms glowing against dark green. (I had to kneel down in the stream to take their photo.  So what're a few wet clothes in pursuit of treasure?)

Here's what else I found today, a day I almost didn't go out because I thought nothing new would be in bloom: Marsh Marigold,  Yellow-flowered Grass, Trout Lily,  and Sessile-leaved Bellwort.  Plus lots of buds about to burst.  Check back for further developments.

A Flower by Any Other Name Could Be As Pretty

While enjoying Carolyn H's blog "Roundtop Ruminations," I noticed she was calling Hepatica by another name: Spring Beauty.  Apparently, where she lives in the mountains of Pennsylvania, that's the name Hepatica goes by.  Well, Hepatica certainly is a beauty, and it comes up really early in the Spring.   But the plant I know of as Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) looks quite different, and Carolyn asked me to post a photo of it, so here it is:

I took this photo in my daughter's lawn, downstate in Westchester County. (I've never found it in Saratoga County.  Yet.)  She promised me she would beg the lawn service folks not to spread weed killer in the area where it grows.   I begged her to beg the lawn service folks to not spread weed killer anywhere.  Dear people, we have got to stop  putting that crap on our lawns.  If it's on the lawn, it's in our kids and our pets and all wild critters that need our green spaces to live.  Just mow your broad-leaf weeds, folks, and your lawn will look just fine.  And your kids won't come down with leukemia so often.  I saw a statistic once, quoted by a pediatrician in a letter to The New York Times, that in neighborhoods where ChemLawn and other such firms are regular visitors, the incidence of childhood leukemia was increased by 650%.  Yikes!   And I believe it.  When I worked as a Hospice nursing assistant, I visited suburban neighborhoods where the stench of lawn chemicals daily filled the air, and every other house, it seemed, held folks with cancers of every kind.

Anyway, how could anyone think of Spring Beauty as a weed and not want it in their lawn?  Or Hepatica, for that matter?  (Although Hepatica probably wouldn't grow in places where people obsess about raking leaves.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Flower Finds Today

Here are more of the beauties waking now in the Skidmore woods. This time no boring flower nerd talk. Simply enjoy!

Wild Ginger

Spice Bush

Maidenhair Spleenwort


New Clues to the Violet Mystery

READER ALERT:  This post is for wildflower nerds.

Too much wind today to go back on the river, so I went back to Skidmore woods to revisit my mystery white violet.  (The small, fragrant, pure white, un-veined variety I wrote about in my post for April 2.)  I found a couple of clues that might yet lead to discovering its name. 

First, I saw one plant of purple flowers, right in the middle of the patch.  Same size, same leaf shape, same basal-leaves-only configuration, same fuzzy stems, same fragrance.  But purple, not white.  Just one purple plant among dozens and dozens of white ones.  Could it be a variety of the same species?  A hybrid?  A mutation?  Hmmmm.  I just don't know.

Second, I turned a pure-white one over, and discovered its spur was purple.  Just the spur, not the backs of the petals like Canada Violet.  Well that should be a distinguishing feature, I thought as I pored over my guide books later.  To no avail.  Audubon's, Newcomb's, Peterson's,  even Britton & Brown's.  Not a single early-blooming, pure white, unveined, basal-leaved, fragrant, purple-spurred violet (with a possible all-purple variation) could I find.   Anybody else have a clue?

Then I found another entirely different violet, this one not in the woods but out in a sunny, grassy spot.  The richest, deepest, most radiant purple, with a fragrance -- no, a perfume -- as deep as its color.  This, too, had a quite distinctive feature:  the lower outside petals were folded up, unlike any other violet I've ever seen.  And once again, while searching my books, I never found a picture or description of this violet.  What shall I call it, then, when I record it in my journal?  Guess I'll call it "Purple Perfumed." Unless somebody out there can tell me its official name.

Postscript:  I looked through H. H. Howard's Plants of Saratoga and Eastern New York and found a violet that might be my Purple Perfumed one.  Viola odorata, or English Violet.  Not a native, maybe escaped from gardens.  Certainly very lovely.  But I still haven't got a name for that fragrant white one.