Monday, August 5, 2013
Into the Clouds with the A.B.S.
Saturday morning, August 3: The rain had stopped by the time I left Saratoga, and the sun was shining brightly an hour and a half later when I left the Northway at Exit 30 and headed west toward Wilmington and the toll road that would take me up to the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Maybe we'll have a clear day after all, I thought, looking forward to joining other members of the Adirondack Botanical Society to explore the alpine flora that only thrives at such high elevations. At 4,865 feet, Whiteface is among the highest of the Adirondack's high peaks, and as I approached it, it looked as if its summit was still in the clouds on this otherwise beautiful day.
The road up the mountain is about five miles after the toll booth, and with every mile the clouds grew lower and lower over my head.
By the time I joined our leader, Steve Young of the New York Flora Association, and other members of the A.B.S. at the Whiteface summit parking area, the mountaintop was pretty much encased in chilly fog. Undeterred, we donned our parkas and polar fleece and set about exploring the unique alpine flora. Right here in the parking lot, Steve gave us our first lesson in some of the plants we were going to find all over the summit today.
Counter-clockwise from the lower right, there was Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago leiocarpa), Highland Rush (Juncus trifidus), a shrubby Mountain Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. crispa), and cascading down the left side of the boulder, Bearberry Willow (Salix uva-ursi), a very typical alpine assortment.
The actual summit of Whiteface lay another fifth of a mile further up, which we reached by climbing a rocky trail protected by sturdy railings. Our progress up the mountain was slow, since we found ourselves stopping every few feet to see what was growing along the trail.
Here's a typical patch of the mountain greenery lining the trail, a colorful mix of Northern Bilberry (Vaccinium ulginosum), Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), and a ferny moss I'm not sure the name of. (Update: the moss is probably Hypnum imponens [Brocade Moss].)
Some of those Bilberry leaves were prettily tipped with pink and spangled with beads of moisture deposited by the cloud fog.
In almost every sheltered crevice in the boulders we found Mountain Sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica), white starry flowers surmounting puffy clumps of fine green leaves.
Another of the most common flowers abounding all over the summit was Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata), notable for its snowy-white flowers and dark green leaves displaying three teeth at the tips.
The "sedge heads" and "grami-nerds" among us were thrilled to find some of the rarest graminoids in the state thriving up here in this habitat so inhospitable to most other grasses. This Highland Rush (Juncus trifidus) was especially easy to distinguish from other grass-like plants, due to its tufted stems that were colored brown.
This Northern Singlespike Sedge (Carex scirpoidea) was one of the rarest graminoids we found, its location here on Whiteface being one of only six sites where it has been found in all of New York State. As we were admiring the sedge, the cloud-cover parted momentarily to reveal Lake Placid lying in the valley far below.
As we climbed higher and higher, the wind grew stronger and stronger. When we reached the summit, there were moments I felt that the wind might actually knock me off the broad rock faces. It blew off my hat so many times, I finally tied my bandanna over my hat and under my chin. But wow! What a place! I was truly thrilled to stand up here so close to the sky.
Despite the exceedingly thin soils and harsh weather conditions, we found lots of other fascinating plants up here on the summit, including this very showy Large-leaf Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla).
I confess that my attention tends to drift when the discussion turns to grasses, but I loved watching and listening to Steve display his expertise pertaining to these plants. Here, he is instructing Carol in some of the finer points of a particular alpine species of grass, while I was distracted by the sight of the spectacular landscape beyond and far below them.
After scouring the summit to locate as many plants as we could up there, following a list that Steve Young had compiled of previous finds, we descended the mountain on the opposite side, following a trail that took us through the "krummholz," the typical landscape of climate-stunted trees that lies just below the timberline.
Again, we found ourselves stopping often to identify trailside plants -- and also to enjoy the splendid views of surrounding mountains as parting clouds revealed them to us. The plant under observation here was the Northern Blueberry (Vaccinium boreale), a very small-leaved shrub that bears a very small berry.
After finding a roadside picnic table where we hungrily devoured our lunches (that alpine air may stunt the trees, but it certainly enhanced my appetite!), we made our way back to the parking area. Along the way, Steve showed us the only known site in all the state where Lesser Pyrola (Pyrola minor) can still be found. Since this site was very nearly destroyed by roadwork to improve water drainage, I felt we were extremely lucky to lay our eyes on this plant, even if its flowers had faded and its fruits were forming.
And look what else we found near the parking area -- another exceedingly rare plant, thriving right at the edge of the pavement like any common weed! This is Boott's Rattlesnake-root (Prenanthes boottii), an alpine species that is rare not only in New York, but all over the eastern United States.
While other members of our group were busy examining the number and color of awns on various grasses, I distracted myself by searching around in the dirt near where I had parked my car. Hmm, I wondered, what's this scraggly little plant that's sprawling around in the sand? Some little no'count weed, I was sure, but I sure didn't recognize it.
Here's a closer look at its hairy stems and flower sepals containing ripening seeds. It seemed obvious to me that the petals had fallen, if indeed there ever were petals.
It still didn't ring any bells for me, so I called the experts over, and they couldn't put a name to it either. At least, not yet. But then I received a note from NYFA's Steve Young today, identifying this tiny weed as Japanese Pearlwort (Sagina japonica), a quite recently introduced plant from Asia that is only just being found in New York and neighboring states. It had never been reported in Essex County, the home county of Whiteface Mountain. No wonder we didn't recognize it! Too bad it was just an alien weed and not some long-sought native rarity, but hey, it was a new flower! And a pretty rare one, to boot. At least, so far. (To see photos of this plant in bloom, click here.)
On the way down the mountain on my way home, I was tempted by the warm sunshine and splendid views to pull over for just a little more botanizing at an alluring site.
One of the alluring features at this pull-off site was a streambed (mostly dry) that contained some of the reddest rocks I have ever seen.
Up close, I could see the rock's red surface was dotted with grey and white lichens, creating a pattern as colorful and pretty as calico.
And there, as a final surprise of the day, this royal-blue Narrow-leaved Gentian (Gentiana linearis) announced its vivid presence along the streambed -- a parting gift from a mountain full of botanical delights.