Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Waste Places, Weedy Roadsides, and other Delights
Panicled Dogwood and Weeping Willow share a busy roadside "waste place" with other beautiful plants.
They're called "waste places" in the flower guidebooks. But my friend Sue and I agree that the vacant lots, fallow fields, and weedy roadsides denigrated by that term are actually the best places to look for interesting plants this time of year. And sometimes they yield real treasure. Today, Sue took me to one such place near her home in Queensbury: a roadside ditch just off a busy road where dozens of Fringed Gentians glowed in the unmown grass among the far more common goldenrods and asters and dogwoods.
Although not listed among New York's rare plants, the Fringed Gentian is nevertheless protected as "exploitably vulnerable," and its damp open-field habitat is becoming increasingly rare. It must have very particular needs, and what a treat that we found a place that suited it very well.
Our next stop was a much weedier-looking spot, where recent construction had scraped off the fertile land, and an amazing variety of opportunistic grasses and rather coarse plants were colonizing the now-barren soil: exactly the kind of place evoked by the term "waste place." Here, some kind of flowering grass covers the ground like a low-lying mist.
Mounds of Pinkweed, a Buckwheat Family relative of Lady's Thumb, have sprung up from the sandy soil to compete for space with goldenrod.
Nearly spherical clumps of Winged Pigweed teeter on their single stalks, too green as yet to break off and roll away like tumbleweeds.
Stalks of homely Horseweed going to seed stood tall among lower-growing weeds, providing a landing place for all kinds of bugs, including this little beetle. Just a plain, dark-colored beetle, until you look close and see its iridescence.
Sharing that Horseweed plant was this pair of mating Yellow-collared Cape Moths, stuck together end-to-end. At first look I thought it was some kind of caterpillar until I noticed those distinctive moth-like antennae.
We were traveling through Sue's daily stomping grounds, so she knew of all kinds of interesting places to stop for a bit of botanizing. She, like me, risks death daily by constantly scanning the roadsides for plants as she drives, but it turns out she'd missed a couple that I now called to her attention. Pulling over to the side of the road, we hopped out to take a closer look at Indian Mallow.
Also called Velvetleaf because of its large soft leaves, or Pie Plant because of the pie-crust-crimped top of its seedpods, this introduced mallow species is often found at the edge of cornfields. When those yellow buds open, the flowers look very much like small Hollyhocks.
Along the same roadside and close by the Indian Mallow were masses of a much nastier weed, Horse Nettle.
Every part of this plant except the blossom is covered with stabbing prickles, but the fruits are smooth and round. They look like tiny eggplants, which is not surprising, since both belong to the Nightshade Family.
One roadside plant that Sue had found in her earlier drive-bys was Brown Knapweed, so she took me there to see it. With a larger, pinker flowerhead than that of the similar but much more common Spotted Knapweed, this flower has bracts that are tipped with a brownish fringe, unlike the dark-tipped bracts of the spotted one. (Sorry, my photo of the bracts was not in focus.)
Sue also knew of a swampy spot teeming with Nodding Bur Marigold, one of the last few flowers to come into bloom as fall arrives. There were hundreds more where this one came from, nodding their sunny yellow heads among the cattails in a roadside ditch.
Just across the road from that swampy spot were wide open fields just filled with goldenrods, asters, Joe-Pye Weeds, and other blooming meadow plants. These fields appeared to be managed as a preserve by the local government, for a wide walking path had been mowed right into the heart of the field. Of course we followed, accompanied by the singing of crickets, to see where the path would lead us.
Before looping back to the start of the meadow trail, we detoured along a shaded path into the woods that bordered the field. We found lots of beautiful ferns in there, and Beechdrops, too, but the highlight of our woodland side-trip was this little American Toad, crouched on a fallen leaf. I think the toad thought it was hidden by the leaf, since it stayed very still while Sue and I poked our cameras at it.
Back under the sky among towering goldenrods, we were blessed by a visit from this Monarch butterfly, settling in for a sip of nectar from this vivid New England Aster.