Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Magnificent Mounds of Marvelous Weeds

I belong to two Facebook groups that deal with plants, and boy, does it get my goat when I hear some folks dismiss a perfectly fascinating plant as "just a weed."  Wow, what a failure of imagination! Or knowledge.  All weeds have a story, and most of them have at least a few good points once you get to know them.  Well, let the weed-haters have their tidy gardens of boring horticultural specimens surrounded by deserts of mulch, give me a "waste place" just packed with botanical volunteers.  That's the kind of place I went to today, and oh, did it yield great treasures!  This was the Town of Moreau sandpit at the end of Potter Road, a place just piled with mounds of disturbed soil, every inch of it crowded with wonderful weeds.

Each of the mounds seemed to be home to select groups of weeds, like the one pictured above that was solidly packed with Lamb's Quarter and Ragweed and almost nothing else, or the one pictured below that appeared to host only some kind of giant grass and a few plants of Velvet Leaf with its enormous leaves.  I'm supposing that each heap's denizens depended upon where its dirt came from, and what seeds resided in the soil before it was quarried and carted here.

I know that Velvet Leaf is despised by farmers for the way it invades their fields, but I'm not a farmer so I'm free to adore its sweet yellow flowers, and even more, its funny seed pods with crimped tops that suggest one of its other common names of Pie Plant.

While up on that mound lifting those giant velvety leaves to find the flowers, I discovered that there WERE other plants that were sharing this pile of dirt. One of those plants was Heart-leaved Umbrellawort.  Even though the Umbrellawort had already shed its purple blooms, the flaring  butter-colored bracts surrounding the seed pods had a delicate beauty all their own.

And oh look!  Down at the base of that mound were a few stems of False Pimpernel, with its wee little blue flowers.  I usually find this plant on mud flats along the banks of rivers or creeks.  I wonder how it got here to this place so high and dry?

Moving along, I came to these mounds that were heaped with some flowering vine that was tough enough to bully a shrub of Japanese Knotweed into submission, and also ascend some surrounding trees, as well.

How pleased I was to discover this bully was one of our native plants and not some other alien invasive.  This was One-seeded Bur Cucumber, and it was covered with flowers and newly formed fruit.

One-seeded Bur Cucumber bears both male and female flowers on the same vine.  In this photo, the larger male (staminate) flower is on the right, and the smaller female (pistillate) flowers form the globular cluster seen on the left.

It's that cluster of female flowers that will form the bristly fruit that does indeed look like a bur.

Not too far away, on the next mound I came to, I found another plant with spiny fruit, and that was Jimson Weed, another big burly plant.  Oh lucky day, I said to myself, for here was one of the species I'd been looking for all summer, one of the plants that are missing from the Saratoga County plant atlas.  So I collected a branch of it that contained both a flower and a fruit, noting a smell like peanuts that emanated from the plant.  Best not to be tempted by that scent to taste this plant, though, since I understand it can be deadly poisonous.  Although it has a long history of medicinal and hallucinogenic use, the slightest dosage above the therapeutic amount can cause serious illness or death.

Okay, while we're on the subject of burly plants, here's one of our burliest.  Pokeweed.  It was sharing that mound with the Jimson Weed, and like that plant, it, too, is too toxic for humans to consume, although birds can eat the berries with impunity.  And they do.  This particular specimen was kind of puny as Pokeweed goes. It can be enormous.

As I walked out into a more open meadow, I saw this mound that was studded with colorful garden plants, notably Giant Sunflowers and Cleome.  I wonder if this dirt was dug from a place where a home and garden once stood.

Nearby was a smaller mound that supported even more of that colorful Cleome.

It's pretty unusual to find these gorgeous big pink and white blooms in the wild.

But here, too, I did find a wildflower just as colorful: Sweet William Catchfly was hiding among the grasses down at the base of that mound that bore the Cleome.

And just a few feet away was this brilliant-red flower that vaguely resembled a Petunia.  But it was smaller than a Petunia, nor was it fragrant like that garden flower, and its leaves were not at all sticky. I was completely stumped.  Definitely not in my Newcomb's.  But thanks to those Facebook friends who love their tidy gardens full of horticultural species, I was able to get an ID on this flower as soon as I posted its photo on our shared site.  This is a cultivated garden species called Calibrachoa, a relative of Petunias that is native to South America.  It is also a distant cousin of tomatoes, being in the Nightshade Family.

I next left the dirt heaps behind as I walked into an open meadow.  Here was that marvelous mix of plants that inhabit most open areas this time of year.  The Black-eyed Susans stood out from the rest, but they left lots of room for the Queen Anne's Lace, Red and White Clover, Spotted Knapweed, Daisy Fleabane, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Horseweed, Bedstraw, and other plants too numerous to mention.

In sandier areas of poorer soil, the thready-leaved plants of Slender Gerardia here and there bore a single bloom or two.

White spikes of Wild Cucumber flowers rose from the vines that clambered over a stand of Goldenrod.

In shaded areas closer to the surrounding woods, the starry flowers of Virgin's Bower spangled the dark green leaves.

Near a tiny creek that ran parallel to the gravel road, masses of Spotted Jewelweed dangled their pretty orange blooms.

Sharing the shady streambank with the Jewelweed, a number of Horsebalm plants sprouted these fountains of odd-shaped yellow flowers.  If you stroke these flowers, a scent like that of citronella fills the air. I wonder if it has the same repellant quality that citronella has, and if ever it was used to repel biting flies from horses, and hence this common name.

Speaking of how a plant might have acquired its common name, I wonder how this tiny woodland flower came to be called Enchanter's Nightshade?  When I have more time, I will google this, and hopefully, return with a tale to tell.  I was frankly surprised to see so many fresh white flowers  today, since this species has been blooming for many weeks.

Here it is at last!  I'd been searching for Hemp Nettle all summer, scouring areas where I'd found it before to no avail.  Such a common Mint-family weed, and it had eluded me entirely, until today.  This is one more of those species missing from our county's plant atlas, despite the fact that it's not the least bit rare. Except when I want to find it!  But here it was, in abundant numbers, a virtual hedge of Hemp Nettle lining the shady side of the road.

Here's a close view of Hemp Nettle's tiny florets.  Many Mint-family plants have flowers that resemble each other, but these baby-fine hairs sticking up from the flower's top petal are diagnostic.  As is the particular diamond-shaped pattern that decorates the lower lip.  The plant is not related to nettles, despite the name, but it does have spiny bracts and stiff hairs on the stem that prickle a bit when you pick it.

As I left the shade of the woods and walked toward the gravel road, the sunlight picked out a cluster of sunny-yellow flowers with fern-like leaves that grew by the side of the road.  Gosh, I thought, those kind of look like miniature Wild Senna plants.  But Wild Senna is a taller shrub, and these were low to the ground.  A closer look revealed the red-centered flowers of Partridge Pea, a plant I've only encountered once before in all my wildflower wanderings.  I couldn't remember if this was on the "Missing" list for Saratoga County, but I collected a specimen just in case.  And sure enough, when I checked the plant atlas at home, this plant WAS among the unvouchered.  Here's hoping that it will be, in the future.

I was planning to ignore this last flower.  I saw it off in a roadside ditch as I headed for my car,  but since I see Evening Primrose blooming in lots of other places,  I didn't even slow my steps to take a second look at it.  But something must have signaled to me to turn around and look again.  Hey wait, what's that pink thing on the yellow flower?  A fallen leaf?  A faded bloom?  Or could it be that beautiful moth I've longed to see for years?

It WAS that moth!  That pretty pink and yellow moth that nightly feeds exclusively on night-blooming Evening Primrose, and usually spends the day hiding in the closed-up blooms.  It's called the Primrose Moth (Schinia florida). Like those common weeds that eluded me until today, this moth had also eluded me, despite quite diligent searching.  Well, I guess that this was my lucky day!

P.S.:  Forgive me for neglecting to use scientific names for all these lovely weeds.  There were just so MANY of them, and I didn't want to take the time to look up their proper names.  It's possible I'll come back to add them later.  Or maybe, if you have to know them, you'll look them up yourself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Plants of a High Rocky Clearing

I climbed up a mountain-side powerline this week, and not just so I could enjoy a long lovely view of the Hudson River Valley where it forms the northern boundary of Saratoga County. No, there are some flowers up there that are worth the hot sweaty climb for me, because I don't find them anywhere else in the county. All are native to northeastern North America, and all prefer the sunny exposure and the thin soil over rock that exists beneath this powerline. 

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum) is one gorgeous flower, with blooms almost at big as my fist, and quite fragrant, to boot. I first saw just three or four plants of this native thistle up here on this mountainside three years ago, and I am delighted to report that this year I found they had multiplied manyfold.  The bugs must share my delight, since it is obvious that they love them, too. 

Round-leaved Tick Trefoil (Desmodium rotundifolium) sprawls abundantly across the rocky outcroppings up here and nowhere else that I know of in the county. It is also called Prostrate Tick Trefoil, a descriptive name for the way it crawls along the ground.  All the Desmodiums seem to like this open area with thin rocky soil, as well as other places I have seen them.   Up here I also found D. canadense (Showy Tick Trefoil), D. paniculatum ( Panicled Tick Trefoil), and D. cuspidatum (Large-bracted Tick Trefoil).

Wandlike Bushclover (Lespedeza intermedia) has pretty purple flowers, which helps to distinguish it from the two other Bushclovers with much smaller flowers -- Round-headed (L. capitata) and Hairy (L. hirta) -- that also thrive in this high sunny meadow.

I have seen Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in many other places I frequent, but this Mint-family plant was especially beautiful the day I climbed up this powerline:  beautiful, not just in its own right, but also for the number of pretty butterflies its numerous blooms attracted.  The Fritillaries were here in good numbers, flitting from flower to flower, and a solitary Tiger Swallowtail also joined in feasting on the flowers' nectar.

Orange Grass (Hypericum gentianoides) is a very unusual St. John's Wort, with stems as fine as grass.  So I get where the "grass" part of its name comes from, but I don't know about the "orange." Maybe by mixing the yellow of its tiny flowers with the red of its pointy buds?  Others have told me that the flowers smell faintly of orange if you pinch them to release their scent.  It's also true that the flower stalks turn a rusty orange in autumn.  I can attest to that, since it was late autumn when I first discovered how abundantly this tiny St. John's Wort spread across the thin soil of this high rocky place.  Some of their stems were lime-green and hot-pink, but others were, indeed, a rusty orange.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Exploring a (Kind of) Boggy Shore

After I posted an entry about a recent paddle on Archer Vly near Lake Desolation, a friend wrote to tell me about a second pond, West Vly, that lies within the same area.  And this one, he told me, is full of bog plants.  BOG PLANTS?!  Oh boy, that's all a wildflower nut like me needs to hear! So off I went with my little canoe to see what West Vly had to offer.

I immediately saw that this was quite a different pond than the rocky-edged Archer Vly, where the forest crowded its shore and shaded its banks.  This pond lay far more open, with wide sedge marsh and mudflats along its shore.  And right away, I saw this White Beak Sedge (Rynchospora alba) waving among the tall grasses, and guessed that the vegetation here would be as different as the two ponds appeared.

As soon as I set off to paddle around the pond, I noticed this submerged log that was crowned with a clump of vegetation, including the ruby-budded stems of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum).

A closer look revealed the glistening red leaves of Spatulate Sundew (Drosera intermedia), along with just a few of its tiny white flowers.

I continued until I reached one end of the long pond, where an extensive beaver dam held the water back from plunging down a rocky stream.  Here, the forest was dark with conifers, including the typical bog denizens, Eastern Larch  (Larix laricina) and Black Spruce (Picea mariana).

Along this quiet shore, clusters of Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphea odorata) floated on the dark water.

Another aquatic plant that shared these quiet waters was Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi), with small pink flowers held erect above its oval floating leaves.

Tucked back in among the Leatherleaf shrubs and mixed sedges, a couple of the big green flowers of Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) emerged from the jumble of vegetation.

Paddling across the open water, I headed toward a far shore I could see was rimmed with red along its muddy shallows.

The red plants turned out to be more of the Spatulate Sundew, which formed dense sparkling carpets.  And studding those ruby-red carpets were the slender stems of Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris montana), each stem topped with a single, small, yellow, three-petaled bloom.

The pond was so shallow here, I kept having to push myself along with my paddle.  Concerned with trying to make forward progress, I almost missed seeing this muddy clump that was writhing with the snaky stems of Bog Club Moss (Lycopodiella inundata).

I soon moved into deeper waters that provided easier paddling, and next headed into a broad sedge marsh.

Tucked in among the sedges, I saw the only bladderwort flower I would see the entire day, a single Flat-leaved Bladderwort (Utricularia intermedia) with its distinctive bloom that is striped with fine red lines.

As I moved deeper into the marsh, I encountered a vast expanse where Tawny Cottongrass (Eriophorum virginicum) was dancing and weaving, each cottony tuft atop its slender stem appearing to be moving to its own music.  Since the presence of Cottongrass is usually a sign of a sphagnum peat mat, I searched for a way to climb onto this mat and look for other plants that are typical of a peatland.  But I never found any mat firm enough to support my weight.  It was all very watery.

A bit disappointed that I had not encountered a true bog mat, but still pleased that I'd found some of the vegetation typically found in acidic peatlands, I headed back across the lake, hoping I'd be able to find the place where I'd launched my canoe.  I'd neglected to note any landmarks that distinguished where the trail from the parking area led to the water's edge, and from out here on the pond, the shoreline looked very uniform all the way around.

But then I heard shots ringing out.  Someone was shooting a shotgun.  Over and over again.  I found that a bit disconcerting, sure, but at least the blasts were coming from the direction I needed to head.  And indeed, I did find my put-in place.  (Thankfully, by then the shooting had stopped!)  I should have known I would easily find it, because it was visibly littered with trash.  The same folks who come to the shores of this pond for fishing or hunting or target shooting also leave their litter all over the place, including their empty bait boxes and spent shotgun shells.  It is absolutely beyond me how folks could care so little about this beautiful land.  Unfortunately, I guess it takes all kinds!