Wednesday, January 16, 2019

For Plant Nerds Only

I'd guess most of this blog's readers already know I'm a wildflower-obsessed plant nerd. For more than two decades, I've been keeping a life-list that approaches a thousand plants by now, and every year I keep finding a few more to add to it. Of course, the number of new finds dwindles with each passing year, but this past year (2018) included a few remarkable ones that -- just for my personal record --  I want to document here on my blog.

A truly exciting find was the Two-colored Fringed Orchid (Platanthera x bicolor), a hybrid of the White Fringed Orchid (P. blephariglottis) and the Orange Fringed Orchid (P. ciliaris).  The New York Flora Association Plant Atlas shows this  hybrid as having been reported from only one other New York county (Suffolk, way out on Long Island), so the mystery remains as to how it came to emerge in the Warren County bog where we found it this past July. Plenty of White Fringed Orchids grow in this bog, but the Orange Fringed hasn't been found anywhere near here for years and years.

Truth be told, I never would have found this lovely yellow hybrid -- or at least, been able to distinguish it as such -- if my friend Dan Wall had not alerted me to its presence in a Lake-George-area bog I often visit just to see the White Fringed Orchids that thrive there.   In this photo below, Dan is holding the stem of the hybrid orchid.  A second yellowish hybrid can be seen a few feet beyond, with the definitely more purely white White Fringed Orchid growing between the two.  I have probably passed right by these hybrids on my annual visits to this bog, not noting the slight variation in color that distinguishes them. Thanks, Dan, for helping me see what was probably right before my eyes.

Here's a link to my post recounting the day Dan showed me these remarkable orchids.

A second exciting find this past year was the Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), a tiny Endangered flatsedge that we discovered flourishing by the thousands along the sandy and pebbly shores of Moreau Lake.

Back in early September, I had invited one of New York State's rare-plant monitors, Rich Ring, to walk these shores with me to assess the population of another plant (Small-flowered Gerardia), which had recently been moved to the "Watch" list from the "Rare" list.  While we were walking, Rich had suggested we might also look for this little flatsedge (not really a bulrush), which hadn't been reported from Moreau Lake since way back in 1961.  Turns out, we had been walking right over hundreds of them without seeing them, so tiny they are, and as disguised as they were, hiding among other teeming species of much-more-common flatsedges.   As it happens, we may never see them again in our lifetimes, since the sandy beaches where we found them last September are now under water, due to abundant rainfall all autumn and into the winter.  A lucky find!  Here's a link to my post recounting the day we found this truly rare little plant.

It was quite a good year for me and flatsedges, for I found a couple more that were new to me, while paddling Carter's Pond over in Washington County.   It was interesting to me that both are designated as flatsedges, even though they look quite different from each other.  The Umbrella Flatsedge (Cyperus diandrus) has flat spikelets that are patterned a pretty red and tan:

The Redroot Flatsedge (Cyperus erythrorhizos) has clusters of spikelets that look like yellowish fuzzy caterpillars.  Neither of these flatsedges is considered to be uncommon in our state, although the Redroot Fladsedge is classified as rare in some surrounding states and was recently moved from the Rare to the Watch list in New York.

While paddling that same Carter's Pond in Washington County, I came upon two plants of the Persicaria genus that I had seen before, but which I had always mis-identified.  My paddling companion on that pond was my friend Bonnie Vicki, who helped me find the correct name for these flowers.  First was this dainty, pale-pink flower called Mild Water Pepper (Persicaria hydropiperoides), whose little florets are larger and prettier than those of the Pennsylvania Smartweed I had been calling it before I learned to distinguish it.

Pictured below is the second Persicaria species, P. coccinea or Scarlet Smartweed, that I finally learned the true name of.  I formerly had mis-identified it as Water Smartweed (P. amphibia) when I had found it floating on the surface of a lake.  But here at Carter's Pond it stood tall, its gorgeous  big flower spikes reaching far above the thickets of Swamp Loosestrife that form a virtual shrubby monoculture around the pond.  So even though I had seen these two plants before, I could still add them to this year's "New for 2018" list. And I also learned that I still have a lot to learn about plants!

As long as we're on the subject of my ignorance, here's yet another flower I discovered the true name of this year, having probably long mis-identified it in the past.  This is the Fraser's Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum fraseri).

I found these pretty pink flowers growing on the banks of a little island in Lake Desolation and at first assumed they were the same-old Marsh St. John's Worts I see in many other wet places I paddle. But gosh, they seemed a bit smaller than the ones I usually find.  Looking closer, I noted that the sepals seemed rounder and shorter, too. Could they be a different species, I wondered? A bit of research when I got home convinced me that yes, indeed they were!  I wonder how many times I have seen them and called them by the wrong name.  Another new plant for my life list!

One of the floral "hot spots" my botanizing friends and I like to visit is Canal Park, on the Rensselaer County side of the Hudson River, where the Hoosic River flows into the Hudson. A combination of mixed hardwood forest, steep rocky banks, and alluvial floodplain occur there, providing habitat for lots of interesting plants. And just when we think we have listed them all, some new ones come to our attention.  It's certainly understandable that we might overlook the tiny Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata ), it being so very small and not very colorful.  But my shoelace became untied and when I stooped to retie it, look what appeared before my eyes:

At first, we were stymied by what to call it, because it possessed both alternate and whorled leaves and didn't accurately fit the descriptions in any of our wildflower guides. Later, after a few Google searches, I discovered that Polygala verticillata is sometimes known to have alternate leaves and is then called  P. verticillata var. ambigua.  That's the name I used to record it in my life list.

Canal Park is also known to be home to several species of Bushclover, including one that is classified as Rare in New York State, the Creeping Bushclover (Lespedeza repens).  

Since I had never seen this plant before, I had to compare descriptions in several guides before I became confident enough to assert that this really was the rare Bushclover, an assessment that botanists more expert than I am later confirmed.

Well, the verdict is still out on whether an aquatic plant I found in the Hudson River at South Glens Falls is the Endangered species called Cutleaf Milfoil (Myriophyllum pinnatum) or a similar milfoil that's not nearly so rare. It was growing in only about an inch of water when I found it close to the shore.  "Hmmm," I pondered,  "What's this weird plant?  Don't think I've ever seen it before."

When I looked more closely, I could see both pistillate and staminate flowers in the axils of the spiky leaves, and they reminded me of another milfoil I had found some years ago. So I sent a specimen off to Steve Young, chief botanist with the NY Natural Heritage Program, asking his help to ID it.

Steve informed me that this looked very much like the Endangered Cutleaf Milfoil, but that molecular analysis would be needed to distinguish it from another one very similar in appearance. That analysis has not yet been done, so I'm not quite sure how to record this plant in my wildflower journal.  Unknown Milfoil will have to do for now.

I'm not sure of the exact species of this next aquatic plant, either, although I have a general idea.  I found it attached to the river bottom in the same stretch of Hudson where I found the unknown milfoil.  The water was shallow enough I could reach down from my canoe and pull one cluster up to examine it more closely.  It felt quite gritty, and what amazed me is that it smelled very garlicky!  Some folks who are familiar with aquatic species have told me that this is most likely a multi-cellular macro-alga called Muskgrass (possibly Chara vulgaris).  That smell is the clincher, they told me.  Once you smell it, you won't forget it.

According to information I found on the web, Muskgrass has no true leaves, but it does have branches and branchlets, which occur in whorls at intervals along the main branches. These branches and branchlets are made of single, column-shaped cells that often are surrounded by spine-shaped cells.  These spiny cells and the lime deposits that collect on them are what make the plant rough to the touch.  These branchlets also are the sites for the alga's reproductive sporangia, the dark, ball-like organs that appear seed-like along the branchlets.  No part of the Muskgrass is more than three cells thick.  Wow!  I learn something new all the time!

Whew!  Here's a plant I DO know the name of, and I figured it out all by myself (with Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, that is).  This is the Sessile-fruited Arrowhead (Sagittaria rigida), and it, too, was growing along that same stretch of the Hudson at South Glens Falls as the two plants mentioned above.  According to the New York Flora Association, this is not a rare plant, but I had never seen it before. Or maybe I just never noticed it as different from other Arrowheads, since its flowers look very much like those of the other species.  There's much variation in leaf shape among the Arrowheads, even among plants of the same species.  But this plant had leaves and fruit clusters that were distinctive enough to distinguish it as S. rigida, a new species for my life list.

I haven't been listing trees in my wildflower journal, but maybe I should.  After all, it was puzzling over the magnificent Black Tupelo trees that flourish along the Hudson River that first inspired my passion to know the name of everything that grows. And it was fun this year to puzzle out that the  leaves pictured below belonged to a Yellow Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) growing along a trail in the Skidmore Woods.

Another common name for Q. muehlenbergii is Chinkapin Oak, and that name could be a useful mnemonic, for a distinguishing feature of the Chinkapin Oak's leaves is a tiny pin-point projection at the tip of each leaf lobe.  Some tree guides mention the number of leaf lobes as distinctive for this species, but as this photo shows, that number can vary.  A close look, however, reveals that every lobe is tipped with that tiny point.

My friend Ed Miller deserves the credit for alerting me to the presence of this tree in the Skidmore woods, a calcareous habitat that this species prefers.  If I noticed it at all, I probably dismissed it as one of the Chestnut Oaks that also abound in this woods, until Ed took a closer look and alerted us that he had found something unusual.  Even though the NYFA Plant Atlas indicates that this tree has not been vouchered for Saratoga County, that doesn't mean it doesn't grow here.  Because of Ed's pointing it out and demonstrating its distinctive features, I can now defend this tree as present in the county.  And I can also add it to my life list.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this beautiful walk with you through the new plants for 2018. I'm so grateful that you share with us so openly!

Woody Meristem said...

Very nice variety of new finds -- congratulations.

LC said...

This was a joy to read. Thank you!