Friday, February 16, 2018

Nancy's Backyard Botanical Bounty

Imagine stepping out your back door to enter your very own nature preserve!  That's the case for my friend Nancy Slack, whose Schenectady County "backyard" consists of several hundred acres of forest and wetlands.  This week, Nancy invited all of us in the Thursday Naturalists to come enjoy a snowshoe hike through her backyard preserve, our going made easy along snow-covered trails that were already nicely packed.

We first realized our trails were passing through wetlands when we encountered extensive patches of Sensitive Fern, their green fronds long gone but their location marked by abundant spore stalks poking stiffly out of the snow.

I was puzzled at first by some of the stalks that appeared more open and lacy,  compared to the typical stalks that are packed tightly with dark-brown "beads" containing the spores.  But one of our exceedingly knowledgeable companions, Ruth Schottman, explained that the lacier stalks were what remains after the spores had been shed.  This was news to me!  For many years I have passed by these spore stalks, and never had I noticed the stalks whose spores were gone!

These twigs presented more evidence that we were passing through wetlands, for what other conifer beside the Larch has peg-like needle buds like these?  And Larches like it wet.

But here was another puzzle:  these cones were way too large to be those of the American Larch (Larix laricina).  That's when I learned that there are two introduced species of Larch that occasionally can be found in our wetlands, one originally from Europe (L. decidua) and the other one from Japan (L. kaempferi).  I'm not sure which one this is.  Both introduced species have cones that are larger than those of our native species.

It's always fun to come upon plants that we would immediately recognize in summer, but which present puzzling ID challenges to us when we encounter their remains in winter.  At first, I thought these spiky clusters were what was left of the fruits of Bristly Sarsaparilla.  But I was wrong.  There was nothing bristly about this plant.  Hmmm . . . . What else could this be?

Nancy was the one who first suggested Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea), and then it clicked:  of course!  What other vining plant produces such perfectly spherical umbels of dark blue fruits?

Here were some other clusters of dark-blue fruits,  but these were not held in spherical umbels like those of the Carrion Flower, and they were growing on a woody shrub instead of a herbaceous vine.   What else could these be but the fruits of Maple Leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolia)?

Our major puzzle of the day was this vine containing multiple clusters of tiny ruddy-brown dried leaves.  Laurie and Ruth are here taking a closer look, acknowledging that neither of them had ever encountered a plant that looked quite like this.  Neither had I.

Here's a closer look at one of the leafy clusters.  I suggested it could be some kind of "witches' broom" -- a plant deformity caused by a pathogen that produces a great proliferation of leafy shoots -- and both Laurie and Ruth agreed.  But what species was the host plant?

Uh oh!  When we saw that the vine was covered with these tiny hair-like rootlets,  we surmised it could hardly be anything else but Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).  Luckily, I long ago outgrew my sensitivity to the toxins of Poison Ivy, since I had been examining these leafy clusters with my bare hands.  (So far, no rash has developed.  Whew!)

When I got home, I searched on my computer for "witches brooms on Poison Ivy" and discovered this photo posted by a man named Karl Hilliq.  I hope he doesn't mind that I borrowed his photo to reveal what our dried-up clusters of leaves would have looked like when they were green.

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