Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Miniature Marvels

Darn that Evelyn! I used to be able to go for a walk in winter just to get some exercise. But ever since Evelyn Greene, a moss and liverwort expert, showed me all the cool stuff that grows on rocks and trees all year around, my winter walks have become just as halting as my spring wildflower ones, when it sometimes takes me an hour to progress a hundred yards. Such was the case today when I ran out to the Skidmore woods, hoping to burn off a few Christmas cookie calories. No sooner had I set foot on the trail than I was stopped dead in my tracks: There I was, surrounded by trees just covered with big dark splotches that demanded a closer look.

The very first splotch I examined with my hand lens yielded several miniature marvels. There was liverwort, sure, these dark brown braided structures branching out across the bark. I think it's a kind of Frullania. The fluffy green stuff is doubtless a moss, but one I don't know the name of.

The real surprise, though, was these teeny tiny tan fungi, scattered by the hundreds among the cracks of the bark. They look like fungi, anyway, like little stemmed mushrooms, although they're now hard and dry.

Not all the tree splotches were dark. Here are some that are whitish and shaggy. Is this a lichen or a fungus? I can't find anything quite like it in my books, so I will have to ask some experts.

Here's a closer look at those shaggy structures. They remind me of Bear's Head, a toothed fungus, except that these teeth are dry and papery, not soft and fleshy.

The Skidmore woods offers another impediment to my maintaining a brisk walking pace, and that's the profusion of marvelous rock formations that call to me to stop and explore every cranny. There's a geologic fault line that runs north-south along the eastern edge of the college campus, and here expansive walls of calcareous rock are exposed, providing a rich habitat for many lime-loving mosses and ferns.

Here's a closer look at some of that rock, with its deeply pitted surface, a combination of crumbly, grainy stuff interspersed with hard, translucent chunks that are glassy and almost blue.

Update: My friend Ed Miller wrote to tell me that "the bluish component of the Skidmore limestone is likely chert, a poor grade of flint. It can be flaked for small arrow points, but seldom is suitable for larger points or stone knives. We used it for our flint and steel fire-starting kits when we were in scouts. Good enough for that purpose. Flint nodules are uncommon enough to have been valuable for primitive peoples. In Britain there was a brisk trade in those that were formed in the chalk cliffs of Dover."

Today, these rock walls were hung with icicles, as if decorated for Christmas.

And because it's Christmas, I will look kindly upon this bright red Burning Bush berry, so prettily snuggled into the snow-encrusted moss, as if posing for a Christmas card photo.

There's a wonderful variety of mosses that grow on these craggy rocks, and I thought at first this was one of them. But a closer inspection revealed that no, this is a liverwort. Could it be Porella, a mossy-looking liverwort that Evelyn showed me growing on a tree just a week or so ago? Does Porella grow on limey rocks as well as on trees? I'll have to ask her.

I'll also have to ask her if this pretty moss is Rhodobryum rosea, a moss that in summer looks like tiny dahlias. This growth is certainly fresh and green, but I did see some dead brown parts among it that looked like dried dahlias.

This Maidenhair Spleenwort was also still green, and it will stay that way all winter, since it's one of our evergreen ferns. There were dozens of these spleenworts sprouting out of the cracks of one mossy boulder, a sure sign that there's limestone here, since that's the kind of habitat this spleenwort favors.

The same goes for Walking Fern, another limestone lover. I thought to myself, if there's spleenwort here, I bet I'll find Walking Fern. And so I did. Quite a bit of it, in fact. This is just one little plant. On the right side of this photo you can see the fronds of other ferns reaching out across the moss to bury their tips and start new plants. The ferns will eventually "walk" across the face of the boulder.

I wonder how long it would take one fern to cover the face of a rock. I think I may have found a walker that's even slower than I am.


Louise said...

Once again, you've given me new things to look for on my walks. Hunting season is finally over, and I can get back into the woods behind my house. I'm going to deep my eyes out, and see what kind of moss, liverworts and ferns I can find.

smileandrelax said...

I am moving in one week to Greenwich from central VT... reading about your hikes is helping me feel better about this move... which was somewhat compelled due to unemployment and lack of jobs in VT. Very inspiring blog. Thank you!

Woodswalker said...

Hi Louise, enjoy your walks. Always lots to see out there if you know what to look for. Every year I keep learning more plants, so there's always something new.

So pleased to make your acquaintance, smileandrelax. Good luck with your move. Thanks so much for your kind comment regarding my blog. Glad to have you along!