Thursday, September 30, 2010

Aster Analysis With Ed

Ed Miller leads the way to the aster field at the Tanner Road Preserve near Jonesville, N.Y.

Imagine a garage-band guitarist being offered a private lesson by Eric Clapton. That's about how I felt when Ed Miller offered me a one-on-one tutorial in small white asters. Ed's a noted plant expert, and I'm a rank amateur botanizer who has struggled for years to parse out these little white flowers that all look frustratingly alike, so of course I jumped at the chance. Plus, I also got to explore another natural area preserved by Saratoga P.L.A.N. (Preserving Land And Nature), the Tanner Road Preserve, a very pretty tract of meadow, woods, and swamp in southern Saratoga County.

Our examinations were mostly confined to the open sunny areas where four species of small white asters were beautifully in bloom: Aster lanceolatus (Tall White Aster), A. ericoides (Heath or Wreath Aster), A. lateriflorus (Calico Aster), and A. pilosus (Heath or Small White Aster). There were also brilliant purple sprays of New England Aster, a species that needs no close examination to identify, since no other aster that grows around here displays that vivid a color.

But the little white ones sure do need looking at closely to tell them apart. Here, Ed uses his magnifier to peer at the bracts of a flower head. Because this flower lacked the spine-tipped bracts of A. pilosus, he determined that this one was A. lanceolatus.

In many cases, the bracts will be diagnostic. Here, for example, are the distinctive out-curving bracts of A. ericoides.

Sometimes, just a glance will be enough to tell the species apart. Here, the densely-packed floral arrangement of A. ericoides sets it distinctly apart from the surrounding A. pilosus, which has a much more open habit of bloom, as well as a larger flower.

The relative size of flower heads and the number of ray flowers can also offer clues, as this comparison of A. ericoides and A. lanceolatus reveals. Those eyelash-fine petals (actually, ray flowers) of lanceolatus are distinctive for this species. It also grows much, much taller than the other small-white-flowered ones, earning its common name of Tall White Aster.

In the case of A. lateriflorus, the angle at which the stems meet the stalk is one of the features that sets this aster apart from similar ones. Note how the stems stick out at sharp right angles. In most other aster species, that angle is more acute. Note also the preponderance of purple disks among the yellow ones. This multi-color look is what suggested the common name of Calico Aster for this species.

Now, if I can just keep all this information in my head. But sometimes it's fine to let go of the need to put a name to a flower and just stand back and marvel at its beauty. Especially when that beauty's enhanced by a visit from a Monarch butterfly.

Having resolved the matter of asters, Ed and I went for a walk through the woods that are also a wonderful feature of this nature preserve. The day was fine and the woods were lovely, and they also contained some plants I had never seen. Small-flowered Agrimony was one of them (no photo today) and Bur Oak was another. We had to hunt quite a long time to find a Bur Oak acorn, since this tree belongs to the white oak group whose sweet tannin-free nuts are much prized by squirrels. But find one we did, with its distinctive burry cap that nearly covers the nut.

I wouldn't want to step on one of these in bare feet!

We also found a few leaves that were left from last year. They look quite a bit like standard White Oak leaves with rounded lobes, except that they are distinctly top-heavy, much broader at the top than at the narrowing bottom.

While scrounging around on the forest floor looking for one of those acorns, I disturbed this tiny spider, who was hiding under the leaves. No bigger than a baby pea, it scurried away as fast as its candy-striped legs could carry it. It's only by some miracle I managed to get its picture.

Ooh, I remember you! I found a much bigger specimen of this spider while visiting my daughter in New Hampshire last month. It's a Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus), a very pretty spider, indeed.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Back Bay Ramble

Dark, windy, and hot, with intermittent brief showers: It seemed almost tropical today, especially when I was pushing my sweaty way through towering stands of phragmites along the back bay of Moreau Lake. It felt like walking through sugar cane in the Caribbean. Peering up through the feathery phragmites heads, I could see swirling crowds of geese sailing in to join the honking throngs afloat on the water. Despite this heat, the geese sure know it's autumn and are gathering in migratory flocks.

Phragmites is a horribly invasive plant, crowding out our native cattails and other shoreline plants. But one of our native plants is happy to make use of its canes to climb on, and that's Groundnut (Apios americana). There was lots of it growing among the phragmites today. I'd read that this plant produces edible tubers along its roots, and today I lifted a few roots from the muddy ground to see what they look like. Sure enough, there they were: brown lumps the size of pecans strung along thready roots.

These tubers, which are said to be highly nutritious and taste like potatoes, were once considered a staple food for many native peoples, who apparently can eat them with impunity. People of European descent, however, sometimes experience allergic reactions to them. Which is not surprising, since they are related to peanuts, also an allergen for certain people. I'm not allergic to peanuts, so I'm thinking I might try them, if I can find a source that is not on state park land. (All plants are protected from foragers here in the park.) While searching the web for methods of preparation, I found an interesting article from Orion Magazine that contains lots of fascinating information about this native foodstuff. You can read it by clicking here.

Speaking of native foodstuffs, the acorn crop is amazingly abundant this year. Every path is pebbled with them, so a walk feels like having shiatsu massage to the soles of your feet.

The acorns in this photo are not the kind you would want to eat, however, since they are Red Oak acorns and bitter with tannins. The White Oak acorns are sweeter and don't require boiling in several changes of water to make them fit to eat. By humans, that is. I'm sure the deer and blue jays and bears and squirrels are having a feast this fall.

As this photo shows, somebody's been eating these acorns.

The sky grew darker and darker as I continued around the lake, and raindrops dimpled the water from time to time, although for only a moment each time, so I didn't really get wet. One of the great pleasures of walking in autumn is that the trees brighten the landscape even when the day is dark. In fact, I think the colors glow more richly under a cloudy sky, without the highlights and shadows to interfere.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arleen Targan at Mimosa Gallery

Arleen Targan's paintings are brave and beautiful and I just can't get enough of them. Lots of people paint pretty pictures of flowers and landscapes that may be worth a second look, but after that, offer little more to intrigue me. Arleen's, however, are so full of surprises and unexpected pleasures that I could look at them every day for years and still find delight with each viewing. And I do. Our home is adorned with a number of Arleen's paintings, and after her new show at Mimosa Gallery in Saratoga closes near the end of October, we'll have one more. There it is on the gallery wall behind the artist herself, being hugged by my husband Denis. Isn't it just exquisite?

Denis didn't tell me he'd bought this painting until I came tugging his sleeve to nudge him over to see the two that had caught my fancy, called "Edge of the Pond" and "Edge of the Pond II."

As a paddler, I've spent many hours observing the play of colors and changing light under the trees where the water meets the shore, and when I look at these paintings -- somewhat more abstract than the still lifes that make up most of the Mimosa show -- I see amazing colors and lights that escaped my notice before, but which I will now see each time I return, because Arleen has revealed them to me.

As I mentioned, most of the paintings that make up the current show are still lifes -- paintings of flowers and fruits, bottles and bowls and other objects, which, while still recognizable as such, are often rendered in unexpected, even provocative, ways by the artist's vision. Neither completely realistic nor absolutely abstract, they are, in a way, a combination of both. And always, always exploding with gorgeous color and laced with light. Some examples:

Here's what Arleen herself has to say about her work:

My love of painting begins first of all with a love of drawing, of getting down the gesture first of whatever subject I choose to paint. I see painting as more of a process and not a means to an end. I know not exactly what the results will be, but I feel the urgency of the moment, the need to get it all down. Perhaps that means painting is my way into a place that is new to me and yet familiar. I try to find the feeling or the "soul" of a place or thing. I seek always to surprise myself and hope to surprise the viewer as well.

In my latest work and in the winter months, I concentrate on still life painting. Always painting from life, whether outdoors or indoors, has led me back to natural forms in my own studio. I am fascinated by shapes of flowers, dead or alive, by the interaction of unrelated things -- once put together they make some kind of statement. By moving an object an inch or two I can change everything. Sometimes the painting itself makes more demands, and I end up with pure fantasy. Sometimes it is simply the way I first saw it -- the exact picture in my mind.

To see many more of Arleen Targan's paintings, you can visit the Mimosa Gallery, 70 Beekman Street in Saratoga Springs, from now until October 24. I also found a site on the web where a few of Arleen's amazing landscape paintings can be seen. You can see them, too, by clicking here.

Still Here

That Great Egret I saw on Mud Pond last week is still here. And just as elusive as ever. My husband and I walked around the pond today, hoping to get a nice clear shot of this splendid white bird, but each time we approached within focussing range, it flew away as far as it could from us. Can you see it way, way off on the other side, that bright white dot right in line with the beaver lodge? (Click on the photo to see it better.)

By sneaking quietly, hidden by trees, I managed to get a closer shot.

Hey! I think I see something in the egret's mouth! I imagine it would find easy pickings here in this pond, with the water so low. The fish must be suffocating, with nothing but warm shallow water to swim in -- and not much of that. I hope we get rain soon. And lots of it.

I couldn't get very close to that egret, but this grasshopper let me poke my lens right up to him. I'd never before noticed the grasshopper's interesting two-clawed feet.

Something else I'm noticing now that I'm looking up close: this grasshopper seems to have only two pairs of legs. They're supposed to have three pairs, with the hindmost legs big and powerful for jumping. Where are its big jumping legs? This is very mysterious. Anybody have a clue?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Home Again, Home Again

Yesterday I celebrated my homecoming to my local stretch of the Hudson. Today I returned to another regular stomping ground, Moreau Lake State Park, to enjoy a simple walk around the lake. I had planned on walking quickly, hoping to get a bit of aerobic action, and the prospects were good for that: with the lake level low, it was easy walking on a wide sandy beach, and also, because the flowering season is basically over, I hadn't planned on stopping often to identify plants or to photograph them. Silly me. I'm just incorrigible.

I'd barely stepped on the shore when I drew to a halt to breathe in the fresh-air scent of Witch Hazel, just this week come into bloom. With the day so warm, its petals were fully unfurled, like yellow ribbons floating on the breeze.

On cooler days, the petals will curl back up into tight little nubs that will need a warm sun to coax open again. But open they will, you can count on that. I've seen this flower in bloom as late as December.

Although aster season is starting to wane, there was still lots of Heath Aster lining the shore, its mounds of tiny white flowers attracting many bees and butterflies.

Another aster blooming today was Heart-leaved Aster, with sharply serrated heart-shaped leaves and clusters of pretty lavender flowers. A clincher for identifying this species is the presence of dark tips on the bracts of the flower heads, which are quite visible in this photograph, although they were not to my naked eye. (Click on the photo to make it larger.)

Lending a warm golden cast to the shore were masses of this pretty sedge, species name unknown to me.

Blue-stemmed Goldenrod was in its glory. As with the case of Bluestem Grass, I wonder how they came up with that name, since the stems are hardly blue. Well, maybe a little purplish. What really distinguishes this goldenrod is the way the flowers grow all along the stem in the leaf axils, rather than in spikes or plumes at the top. This is a late blooming goldenrod, and one that tolerates quite a bit of shade.

Looking up to the hills that surround Moreau Lake, I could see very little in the way of autumn color. But here and there along the shore, individual trees, like this little maple, had turned spectacularly red.

Speaking of red, could there be any redder red than that of these Bittersweet Nightshade berries?

Lots of folks think these berries are deadly poison because of their nightshade name. Well, they probably aren't. They may be somewhat toxic, but I doubt you could eat enough to poison yourself since they're mighty bitter. Really nasty tasting. How do I know? Well, let's just say it's a good thing I'm not a cat, or my curiosity would have killed me long ago.

I came upon these itty-bitty fungal forms on the same log where I found them a year ago. Could they be the same ones, having lasted over the winter, spring, and summer? They're called Green Algae Coral (Multiclavula mucida), and they only grow where there is green algae. As this photo shows, there's lots of that here on the log.

It's an hour since I started and I'm not even half way around the lake. Still, I dawdle some more as I amble around this quiet bay, the warm sun and still water urging me to further slow my steps. Or maybe those basking kayakers are casting a lazy-day spell over me.

Further on, I pass other baskers lying back on the sandy beach enjoying the sun, their dog enjoying his day at the beach his own way. He would stare intently at minnows for a long, long while, then lunge with a snap to try to grab some. Undaunted by failure, he'd then return to his fishing stance. I can't look at this photo without laughing out loud. Good dog!

Okay, I made it to the swimming beach, so I'm now more than half way around. I start to pick up my pace when I notice the door to the park's nature center is open. Of course, I have to stop in. And what luck! Park naturalists are just about to release the baby fish and turtles they've kept in the center for educational purposes this summer. Since the season is over, these creatures will now be returned to the lake. But first, I get a good look at this baby Large-mouth Bass.

And also these turtles, the larger one a Painted Turtle, the small one a baby Snapping Turtle. (There were four of the baby snappers as well as a Spotted Newt.)

Here's a closer look at one of those little Snapping Turtles. It looks real sweet, but I suppose it could bite you, even at this young age. Not that it tried

Nature Educator Rebecca Mullins and Park Naturalist Gary Hill carry the critters over to a quiet spot along the lake, where a dad and his two girls express an interest in what's going on.

There they go! Rebecca points to where one of the baby snappers is wriggling into the mud.

Bon voyage, little critters! I hope you make it safely home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Home to My Own Dear Hudson

After gallivanting all over the Adirondacks this week, it was good to come home to my own dear Hudson River today. The day was soft and warm, with sunshine winning out over sprinkles just as I arrived at the Sherman Island Boat Launch along Spier Falls Road. The river was quiet and glassy, reflecting the hills and the sky and the trees, which are just beginning to turn their vivid autumn colors. The sight of all that calming beauty and the sweet silken glide of my boat across the still water filled me with a wonderful sense of peace and joy. How lucky I am to have such a place to call home!

And how hungry I am for Honey Mushrooms, which is why I headed straight across the river to land my canoe where a stream comes tumbling down the far mountainside. There's a path that follows that stream uphill to where I have always found this delicious wild mushroom growing abundantly. And this is the season for them.

Here's a photo of just one clump of Honey Mushrooms I found last year on September 24. They're as tasty as they are handsome, and if you find one of them, you're likely to find a hundred.

(Actually, these might NOT be Honey Mushrooms, even though that's the name I filed this photo under. I would have to do a spore print to make sure the spores were white. It's important to be absolutely sure of a species before consuming it.)

But no Honey Mushrooms this year. We seem to be having a fall fungi famine, after this hot dry summer. The only fungi I found were hard woody ones that might have been there for years.

One bright spot of color lit up the dark wooded streamside. The brilliant red of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit berries is set off nicely by those yellow leaves.

I returned to the river to enjoy a nice long paddle up and down the beautiful banks. There was not a single other boat to disturb the tranquil waters.

I, however, continually disturbed this Great Blue Heron each time I rounded a bend in the river. It kept flying ahead of me and landing downstream, only to take off again each time I approached. Finally it wised up and flew across the river.

This dragonfly, on the other hand, seemed to welcome my approach and landed on my leg. It flew off a few times as I poked my camera at it, but shortly returned to exactly the same spot.

I saw a few blooms just starting to unfurl on Witch Hazel, too far away for me to get a photo. But I did manage to get a shot of these Flowering Dogwood berries.

When I returned to my car, I found this furry critter crawling on my windshield wiper. As soon as I tried to lift it safely away, it retracted into this tight little ball.

Reluctant to touch this Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) -- both because I did not want to hurt it and also because its bristles can sometime irritate a person's skin -- I coaxed it onto a twig and safely carried it away to the nearby woods. What beautiful markings! It reminds me of a Snow Leopard.

Heading home, I passed by Mud Pond and stopped to admire these beautiful trees along the shore.

The autumn colors have just begun to emerge. It looks like we're going to have a gorgeous fall season.