Thursday, September 27, 2012

Stalking the Zig-zag Aster

Yes, I know, I've been neglecting this blog of late.  I go out to the woods nearly every day, but to tell the truth, the woods are kind of boring to blog about right now.  Most of the flowers have finished blooming, and those that still hold flowers on top have lower leaves that are shriveled and blackened, due to this past summer's drought.   The birds are silent, the butterflies scarce, and despite a few days of rain the past week, the fungi are few and far between.  There's not much new to report.  So that's why I felt a bit of excitement when the folks at the New York Flora Association asked me to obtain herbarium specimens for two particular asters -- the Zig-zag and the New England Asters -- that haven't been recorded for Saratoga County.  Now when I head to the woods and the roadsides, I feel like I'm on a mission.

I didn't have to search long or far to find New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), since its deep purple flowers announce its presence along nearly every roadside in Saratoga County.  No other aster native to these parts has flowers this vividly colored.  I found this big fluffy bunch along a path in the Skidmore Woods.

 This large patch of lavender asters was growing in a drainage ditch along a local highway, where I stomped on my brakes, swerved to a stop, and leapt from my car to check their identity.  The size and color of the flowers, their branching habit of growth, and their moist thicket location indicated they just might be the sought-after Zig-zag Goldenrod (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides).

Long narrow leaves that clasp the stem were another feature that fit the description of Zig-zag Aster,  but a closer inspection revealed that the shape of the leaves was not quite right, nor was the obvious hairiness the entire length of the purplish stalk.  These must be Purple-stemmed Asters, I concluded.  So my hunt for Zig-zag Asters will continue.

The bit of rain we've had lately has not produced the abundance of fungi we usually find in the fall, but it did cause a few of these tiny Marasmius capillaris mushrooms to open their little pleated caps on wiry black stalks.  This species of woodland mushroom will fruit only after periods of wet and will shrivel and disappear during dry spells, only to promptly reappear after the next rainfall.

This group of large white mushrooms was easy to spot in the green lawn surrounding the entrance to Skidmore College.

There wasn't much to distinguish these mushrooms until I picked one and turned it over.  Then I could see the veil remnants on the stem and the pink unattached gills that led me to believe that this was a clump of Meadow Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris).   I understand that they are good to eat, but I did not learn their identity until I had returned home without them, so I missed my chance to taste them.

I should know better than to ever say that the woods are boring.  There's always something interesting going on.  Here was a whole fallen tree trunk, well rotted and absolutely writhing with thousands and thousands of ants, some winged and some wingless.  They were pouring out of holes in the wood and scurrying across the surface, stopping from time to time to bump heads with each other, the winged ones accumulating in dense layers at certain high points along the trunk.   I later learned that the sexually mature winged ants (both males and females) were being pushed out of the original colony by the wingless workers, that they would now mate, the females would fly off to attempt to establish new colonies, and the males would then die.  Wow!  High drama on a fallen log!

High color now in the Sassafras leaves.  I think no other tree has leaves that turn so many glorious shades at once.  Predictions are that most of our autumn foliage will be muted this year, so go find a Sassafras tree and indulge your senses.

The hunt for asters took me right into a patch of Tick Trefoil, which tried to use me as its seed-distribution vehicle.  I discovered a flea comb  was quite efficient at stripping the stick-tights from my pants.


Carolyn H said...

My woods are a little boring right now too. I'm starting to see a bit of color change, but not enough to be really interesting. Yet.

hikeagiant2 said...

We used to run a hike at Sleeping Giant entitled Fall Wildflower Hike - finally we realized that for us it was actually the Goldenrod and Aster Hike - Your post shows there is more to see. :-)