Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wildflowers Arise!

What a shock to open my front door yesterday morning and feel warm air rush in.  All this warmth -- it reached the mid-70s on Friday -- was sure to awaken the overdue flowers, I thought, and I headed down to the Ballston Creek Preserve to see if those Spring Beauty buds I saw last week had finally opened.  They certainly had, scattering their pretty striped blooms by the hundreds all over the forest floor.

 And they weren't the only flowers to burst their buds on this balmy day.   I only had to walk a few feet from my car to see dozens of snowy-white Bloodroot decorating a roadside ditch.

Right across the road from the Ballston Creek Preserve is Shenantaha Creek Park, which contains long stretches of woodland trails that follow Ballston Creek as it tumbles past steep cliffs of shale. I visited this part of the park a year ago, and remembered a wealth of wildflowers growing there.  So off I went to explore those trails again.

Well, it was a lovely walk, accompanied by the constant sound of rushing water from the nearby creek, but I began to feel disappointed that I hadn't found a single woodland wildflower.  But then I came to this special place, where springs dripping down the face of the cliffs had enriched the soil along this little stream, creating a perfect habitat for some of our most beautiful spring blooms.

Blue Cohosh was the first one I saw, its bright-yellow anthers alerting me to take a closer look and find the rest of its purplish-green plant that was hiding in plain sight among the brown leaf litter. And once I saw one, I found them by the dozen.

You'd think such a bright crimson bloom as Red Trillium would be easy to spot on the forest floor, but since it hangs its head beneath its broad green leaves, I had to tip it up with a finger to see its lovely face.

 Another flower that hangs its head is the beautiful Trout Lily, but its bright-yellow petals curl up from between its equally colorful sepals, making it easy to spot where today it was pushing up from among its speckled leaves.

Exhilarated by the delight I felt in finding these flowers in bloom, I continued along the creek bed to areas I had not explored before.  After a bit, the steep banks leveled out to a flat open area that was studded with myriad clumps of Dutchman's Breeches, their feathery silvery-green  foliage topped by stems of plump little blossoms.

Lining the path were the fuzzy green heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger, and I never would have known that the plants were in flower if I hadn't knelt down to peer beneath those leaves, where its odd brown blooms clung close to the ground.

Where the land leveled off, the creek spread out to form marshy spots and shallow pools, some of which were carpeted with the bright-green leaves of Golden Saxifrage.  Another name for this tiny-flowered plant is Water Carpet, and it's easy to see how it came by that name.

Its flowers, however, are not that easy to see.  Or to recognize as flowers, once you do see them.  That circle of tiny red dots -- plus a few scarce dots of yellow here and there -- is all this plant comes up with for a blossom.

It sure wasn't hard to see this brilliant red fungus, called Scarlet Cup, possibly the earliest of our spring fungi.  Before I cleared the dead leaves away, this fungus was mostly covered, but just a glimpse of its vivid crimson announced its presence even to my poor eyesight.

I would not have seen this Garter Snake if it hadn't suddenly slithered away from the path.  I followed after, hoping to take its photo, when it stopped short and coiled into a strike position. And it actually did strike at the camera I poked too close to its face, hoping to capture the vivid red of its flickering tongue.  So if this photo's not perfectly in focus, perhaps you will understand why.  I'm not really afraid of a Garter Snake's bite, but that quick lunge of a strike did startle me a little.

Eventually, the lowland trail curved upward to take me to the top of a ridge, where dozens of Hepaticas in all the colors they come in were scattered across the forest floor.

I found this purple-edged variation particularly stunning.

The woodland trail ended at a broad paved path, the Zim Smith Trail that runs for many miles through Saratoga County.  As rain clouds threatened, I strode quickly along this trail, not expecting to find many plants that would cause me to pause.  But then I passed this tree, which was studded with big fat opening buds the likes of which I had never seen before.   Its green bark and aromatic wood reminded me of Sassafras, as did the shape of its bud cluster, but Sassafras flowers are yellow, not red.  Can anyone tell me what this tree could be?

Update:  I received a note from my friend and expert botanist Ruth Schottman, who tells me I am probably right about this being Sassafras.  Here's what she said: 
Quite sure your diagnosis is correct: smell, green twigs are diagnostic. You show a male flower cluster just opening, so the color of the anthers is dominant. In a while 4 valves will open on the anthers and the pollen will spill  out or be flung out by the opening valve doors. It is much the same on spice bush where I can watch it much better – at eye height. Both are mostly, but not always dioecious. The warty lenticels and linear leaf scars also look right. [I had also sent Ruth photos of the twigs and bark.]
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  Nope, we were wrong about this.  I took a twig of these flowers home and placed them in a vase, and as I watched the anthers elongate far beyond anything ever seen on a Sassafras, my botanist friends agreed that this is most likely Box Elder.

I did know this tree.  These are the staminate flowers of Red Maple, masses of which now color the hilllsides with that marvelous blush we only see in spring.  And spring is here at last.


Andrew Lane Gibson said...

So glad to see spring truly waking up for you! I've never see golden saxifrage before. I will say the blue cohosh has recently been split into two species; the traditional blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) has green-yellow flowers that open when the plant is leafed out, and the recently separated giant blue cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) has dark purple flowers that open before the leaves unfurl. We have both species here in Ohio. I must say too you have me stumped on that tree's flowers. I hope someone can chime in with an answer/suggestion!

Uta said...

Could the blossoms be an American Elm. We just cut one down on our property that died.

Ellen Rathbone said...

So many old friends! We are still waiting here. We woke yesterday to incredible flooding (after a day of 70+ weather), and this morning we woke to a light blanket of snow. Spring flowers? Daffodils and crocus. Saw some hepatica buds Wednesday, but no flowers yet.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Greetings Andrew and Uta and Ellen, thanks for stopping by. If you noticed the update to this post, you will see that our mystery tree has been identified by my friend Ruth Schottman. I have seen Sassafras flowers many times, but never the staminate ones at this stage of development. There's always more to learn. Nature is full of surprises.

Andrew, we have both species of Blue Cohosh in the Skidmore woods, with C. thalictroides blooming about a week later than C. giganteum. If you type "Blue Cohosh" into my blog's search bar, you will find some posts where I show photos of both.

squirrel said...

I do believe that is the best Spring Beauty photo I have seen. So often the colors are washed out. And at last you got a photo of the Garter snake tougue, you deserved it after it lunged at you. Good job keeping your composure and not dropping your camera. I have never seen Blue Cohosh in bloom, thanks for sharing.

Raining Iguanas said...

My son and I finally tackled the Cottage Park Trail today at Spier Falls. I have wanted to experience that trail ever since you blogged about it last year. I would never have known about its history had it not been for your informative posts. What a great day we had. Thanks again!

catharus said...

Lovely, lovely post! Those purple-fringed hepatica's are something!