Monday, August 23, 2010

Creekside Giants and Other Curiosities

Rain today. And chilly. Not a good day for a long hike or paddle, but okay for short forays to nearby sites between downpours. There's a trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa I hadn't visited since June, so I donned my raingear and watershoes, wrapped my camera in a plastic bag, and headed over there. I wanted to see if the Great Ragweed I'd found before at this site had lived up to its name and grown to gigantic proportions. And yes, it certainly had. Good thing I don't get hay fever.

This photo shows how the ragweed crowded the path, towering over my head at about seven feet tall.

Closer to the creek where it had access to more sunlight, Great Ragweed grew to nearly twice that size, with stalks as thick and heavy as oar shafts. In fact, it had grown so tall and heavy it collapsed of its own weight. I tried to raise this stalk to get a better idea of its height, but I couldn't budge it.

My failure to raise that ragweed stalk might also have been because it was engulfed by heaps of Wild Cucumber vines. That vine was climbing all over the place, its normally upright flower clusters somewhat flattened by all the rain today, but nevertheless emitting a sweet fragrance that hung in the humid air.

A member of the Gourd Family, this native plant (Echinocystis lobata is its Latin name) produces a spiny fruit that does look a bit cucumbery, but it's full of cottony fluff, not watery flesh.

Managing to hold its own against the encroaching cucumbers, masses of Pale Jewelweed lined the creek banks and shouldered their way onto the path, their water-resistant leaves shining with beaded-up raindrops.

I think this jewelweed's tender yellow blooms, which dangle like earbobs on slender stalks, are among the prettiest of our native wildflowers.

It amazes me how this annual plant manages to dominate its habitat, since it has to grow up to its six-foot height (or more) each summer, starting from seed each spring. The jewelweeds -- both this yellow Pale Jewelweed and the orange Spotted Jewelweed -- have an amazing mechanism for sowing their seeds, which are just about ready to burst this fat little pod.

When I closed my fingers over the pod, the touch of my hand triggered the pod to split into three parts and coil back like a spring, forcefully ejecting the seeds within. In fact, those seeds were catapulted away with such force they escaped my hand. Too bad, since I was looking forward to eating them. They taste quite a bit like walnuts.

I was pleased to see so many native wildflowers (yes, even the Great Ragweed is a native plant) dominating the creekside this time of year, since earlier in the summer the banks were crowded with alien species like Wild Parsnip and Poison Hemlock. By now, the sturdy late-summer natives like goldenrods and Joe-Pye Weeds are in their glory.

Dogwoods, too, are abounding in this habitat, especially the Silky Dogwood, which bears these beautiful blue berries in late summer.

This time of year, the Panicled Dogwood has snowy-white berries on hot-pink pedicels, but the birds had devoured most of its berries today. What startled me today was seeing the Panicled Dogwood newly in bloom. I wonder what purpose is served by this shrub setting bloom again so late in the year.

Masses of Common Milkweed lined the path where it moved through a meadow, their stalks now laden with fat prickly pods. Although the pods are not quite ripe enough to release their silken seeds, I can't resist peeling one back to marvel at the compact elegance of its seed cluster. It looks like a finely carved fish made of ivory and jade.

Oh dear, it it that time already? The New England Asters are starting to bloom. I can't remember seeing these radiant purple blossoms before mid-September. But here they are in August. There were several open blossoms on this plant, but their petals were sodden and bruised by today's rain. I loved this intensely purple bud just opening against a green and gold cloud of goldenrods in the background.

Pink Knotweeds are not very showy plants, presenting a rather plain appearance even when massed in damp areas as they were today. But I always feel they deserve a closer look. I never know when I might find one of those tiny pink buds opening into an exquisite tiny pink flower. Like this one.

In the same marshy spot where the knotweed grew were numerous stalks of a truly homely plant with an ugly name to match: the Common Clotbur. A coarse plant with rough stems and leaves, and with "flowers" in the shape of prickly burs, one might think it's not worth a second glance. But one would be wrong. Especially when there's such a little jewel of a bug as this Candystriped Leafhopper sitting on one of those leaves.

Here's one more flower I found today, and I'm posting its photo not just because I think it's pretty (which it is), but also because I don't know its name and I'm hoping somebody does. And will tell me.

I do know that it's some kind of chickweed. It looks almost exactly like Common Chickweed, except that it's at least twice as big, with flowers about half an inch across. And it's not Star Chickweed nor Field Chickweed nor Mouse-ear Chickweed nor Lesser Stitchwort, and those are all the chickweeds I've ever heard of. So! Any guesses?

Update: My friend Ellen has come through for us about the chickweed. This appears to be Myosoton aquaticum, a water-loving chickweed introduced from Europe that has found a (too?) happy home along North American streambeds. It goes by a number of common names including Water Chickweed and Giant Mouse-ear. That Kayaderosseras streamside seems to be a hotbed for giant species.


June said...

I love that leafhopper (as well as all the rest of your pics and info!).
When I see tiny insects like that, so beautifully colored, I think, in wonder, "Why would anything so small and insignificant be so PRETTY?"
That's why nature is a source of Faith for me.

Louise said...

I've never seen the pale jewelweed, but I'd love to. Is it just the pale whose seeds taste like walnuts, or do the orange spotted ones also?

You've given me several new plants to look out for, though I've never even heard of giant ragweed, and don't know if it grows in this area (good thing as I do get hay fever.) No idea on the chickweed, sorry.

Ellen Rathbone said...

As always, you have some great finds. Do you happen to know if the pale jewelweed prefers open spaces while the orange prefers shady? Someone asked me and I just don't know - I rarely see the pale.

Don't know about the chickweed - although I did know it was a chickweed. Could it be giant chickweed (Myosoton aquatica), aka: water mouse-ear and giant water-chickweed?

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks for your comments, June and Louise and Ellen. As for the jewelweeds, I've found the yellow in both partial sun and shade, blooming quite a bit later than the orange, and I find it less frequently. The seeds of both kinds taste the same.

Thanks for the lead on the chickweed, Ellen. I looked at images online and this looks like the one. And it was growing in very damp ground, as its specific name implies.

Jens Zorn said...

Apropos the exploding jewelweed, there is a well-documented video showing similar behavior in Peat Moss:

Virginia said...

How many treasures on such a damp day! Part of my garden has wildflowers and my neighbors insist that the goldenrod I have mixed in with the asters is ragweed. Interesting to see your detailed descriptions and photos.

bob watering said...

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