Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nature Adventures Nearer Home

I've been traveling pretty far afield of late to see some amazing things, but today I reminded myself I don't have to go far from home for wonder-filled nature adventures. My own Moreau Lake State Park offers a rich variety of options: mountain trails, lakeside beaches, river islands, forests, streams, marshes, ponds, waterfalls, open meadows . . . the list goes on and on. The only problem is deciding which terrain to choose. This morning, my choice was a steep rocky trail through dark green woods along a babbling stream to a sun-filled clearing and a mountain pool. All in under three hours! We could have stayed all day, my friend Sue and I, exploring that pool and its flora and fauna, but Sue did have to show up for work this afternoon, so here she is heading back down that trail, which slopes off sharply into a deep ravine.

Called the Baker Trail, and only recently mapped and marked with light green markers, this wooded and mountainous trail offers many delights. Birdsongs from many species accompanied us on our climb, which took much longer than it might have, since we constantly stopped to note what mosses and ferns were growing out of the lime-rich boulders lining the trail.

There was no way we could miss seeing these bright orange mushrooms, tiny though they were, since their brilliant color called to us from out of the dull brown leaf litter.

Our destination was this sunlit mountain pool, shored up at one end by a beaver dam, home to what sounded like a thousand Green Frogs all twanging their banjos, and nearly filled in completely with Water Arum, also called Wild Calla.

The Calla was just beginning to bloom, its snowy-white spathes standing out against the blue-sky-reflecting water.

Sue was the one who spotted this empty American Chestnut bur lying on the muddy ground at the water's edge. This is an exceedingly rare object to find, since very few chestnuts grow to nut-producing maturity before thy succumb to the blight that has removed them from our forests. Using her binoculars to search the canopy for chestnut leaves, Sue found a number of chestnut trees around the pond that were of sufficient height to have possibly produced this bur.

Aside from the Calla and a few clumps of Blue Flag sprouting up from hummocks in the middle of that pool, we saw very few flowers in the woods today. Most flowering plants need more sunlight than the filled-in tree canopy lets in, an exception being this newly emerging cluster of Indian Pipe. Containing no chlorophyll and thus not able to use sunlight to produce its own nutrients, this ghostly little flower is parasitic on intermediary fungi in the soil to obtain its nourishment.

The same is true for Pinesap, a relative of the Indian Pipe whose flowers are borne in clusters, rather than singly, and whose color is more yellowish than the ghostly white of Indian Pipe. As its name suggests, this plant is often found under pines.

Both Indian Pipe and Pinesap used to be called "saprophytes," meaning plants that draw their nutrients directly from decaying matter in the soil. But recent scientific research has revealed that both these plants depend on using intermediary soil fungi to obtain nutrients, in a parasitic relationship that provides no benefit to the fungi. Because of these research findings, both plants have been reclassified, and are now included in the Heath Family (Ericaceae). I grant that it is hard to see how these pale little plants could possible be related to such other heaths as cranberries and blueberries, but it seems they all depend on soil fungi to get what they need.

Well, I learned something new today. I thought I'd better review my knowledge regarding Indian Pipe and discovered that my knowledge was obsolete. That's one of the great rewards of keeping a blog. I figure I'd better make sure what I say is true before I publish it, and so I get re-educated every day. Another great reward of blogging is that it gets me out nearly every day. Even if I only stay close to home.


Louise said...

Moreau sounds like such a wonderful place to explore, with new treasures around every bend.

Caroline said...

I remember finding Indian Pipes in the Adirondack woodlands where I grew up. They have a sort of other worldly quality about them, don't they?

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Louise, you are SO right about Moreau. When I'm there, I could swear I was a hundred miles up in the Adirondacks, but I'm only 10 miles from my home in Saratoga.

Hi Caroline, I agree that Indian Pipes look kind of eerie, with their ghostly translucency glowing in the dark woods.