Saturday, February 9, 2019

Rare and Protected Plants of Moreau Lake State Park

Every February, the Friends of Moreau Lake State Park hold a chili dinner to raise funds to support the park.   This year, when we met to discuss a speaker for this year’s event, it was decided that there was so much good news to convey about the park, we should have our own people talk about it, instead of hiring an outside speaker.  So Alan Trepper, our new park supervisor, and Rebecca Mullins, the park’s nature educator, volunteered to report on some of the many amazing park programs and additions.  Then they said to me, Jackie, could you maybe talk for about 10 minutes on the plants that grow in the park?  Ten MINUTES!!!?  Man, I’ve been wandering this park for more than 25 years, documenting every plant I could find, which now add up to about 400 species – and that’s just wildflowers, not counting trees, mosses, ferns, lichens, liverworts, etc., etc., etc.  Heck, I could talk for ten HOURS and still not shut up! (As some of my friends already know.)  But then I relented.  How about I talk about just the rare and protected plants I’ve found in the park?  So that’s what I did at the chili dinner.

Here’s the text of my talk, along with the photos I shared.

Moreau Lake State Park really IS a treasure house of native and rare species.  When I visit nature preserves in other parts of our state, I feel lucky if I can find any native plants besides Skunk Cabbage and Poison Ivy, due to deer overpopulation and rampant invasive species.  But Moreau is remarkable for offering within its nearly 6,000 acres many different, virtually pristine habitats that support a huge variety of native plant species. Among those native plants are three that are classified by our state as Endangered, one that is rated as Threatened, two that are rated as Rare. And we also can find in this park a dozen orchids, all of them protected species and included in the classification of Exploitably Vulnerable.

Many folks, when they think of Moreau Lake State Park, think the park consists of the beach and the campgrounds and that’s about all. But the park contains a heck of a lot more than that! Here's a recent map of the park that reveals its extensive holdings.  (And doesn't yet show the thousand MORE acres the park is due to acquire, thanks to recent acquisitions.)

We have a big chunk of a the Palmertown mountain range and miles of both banks of the Hudson River banks.  Here's a view from one of our mountain heights, looking over the Hudson River and including some of the park's forested acreage across the river into Warren County.

We have pine woods and hardwood forests; lakeshore, streambanks, swamp and bog; soils that are basic and others that are acidic; rocky heights and soggy lowlands.  We even have THREE lakes: Lake Moreau, of course, but also Lake Ann way up in the mountains, as well as the beautiful Lake Bonita, shown below, which we acquired along with the former Mt. McGregor Prison lands.  

So it’s really not too surprising that I’ve found some really rare species here, and I’m here to tell you about them.

Three ENDANGERED  Species
Keep in mind, now, that rare doesn’t necessarily mean gorgeous.  This rather weedy- looking Whorled Mountain Mint, for example, is among the rarest plants in the state.

In fact, Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum) is classified by the New York Natural Heritage Program as an ENDANGERED plant (meaning it occurs in no more than 5 sites throughout the state).  Well, Moreau Park has the healthiest and most abundant population of all, almost 300 flowering plants concentrated on one sandy shore of a cove.

 Now, I think you’d agree that a bouquet of these probably wouldn’t impress a lady on your first date -- unless she was maybe a rare-plant botanist!  Or if she had a magnifier and could get a really close look at the tiny white, purple polka-dotted florets.

(Of course, if she really WERE a rare-plant botanist, she’ be pretty irked with you for picking this endangered plant!) 

Which reminds me to advise you here:  ALL plants in the park, whether rare or common,  are NOT to be picked, EVER!

Here’s another flower that thrives at Moreau but almost nowhere else in the state, the Large-leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum var. macrophyllum).

Although it may look like just another weed, the Large-leaved Avens is actually an ENDANGERED species in our state, according to the New York Natural Heritage Program.  Well, it sure isn’t endangered here in THIS park!

When the Natural Heritage Program's rare-plant monitor Rich Ring (above, left) joined park staff member Maranda Welch and our former park manager Peter Iskenderian to search for more Large-leaved Avens after my pal Sue Pierce and I had found a few specimens, we stopped counting after we’d found over a hundred healthy specimens along one of the park’s sunny trails.

Here’s one more plant Rich Ring and I found at Moreau that is classified as ENDANGERED in the state, and I still can’t believe we managed to find it, it’s so tiny.  Called Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), it’s so small we could have covered this entire plant with a single 50-cent piece! 

But we found THOUSANDS of this wee little flatsedge, all along the sandy or pebbly shore of the lake.  I was told this plant hadn’t been reported at Moreau since 1961 – that’s 57 years ago!  And we wouldn’t have found it now, if the lake level hadn’t fallen so low. These plants were growing on shores that had been underwater until about 3 or 4 years ago.  Apparently, the seeds had survived underwater all those years and only now, exposed to the air, did they grow and bloom once more. We were really lucky we went looking for them this past early September.  After all the rain we’ve had since then, the shore where we found them is once again under water.  It may take another 50-plus years before we find them again.

So.  That’s THREE Endangered species we have, the rarest category of all.  And we also have at least one plant that’s classified as THREATENED, the next rarest class of plants, known to exist in more than 6 and up to 20 sites in New York State. This is the Small Floating Bladderwort (Utricularia radiata).

You won’t find this plant while hiking the trails or walking the beach, but you might if you paddle the river,where this plant goes floating along on the river’s current.  It’s held erect in the water by those swollen “pontoons” that radiate from its leafless stem.  Because it has no green leaves to photosynthesize, this plant has to obtain its nutrients by other means, which it does through the masses of tiny bladders that it trails along underwater.  Each of those tiny sacs can suck in even tinier aquatic animals, which the plant then digests and feeds on.

Two RARE Species
The next, still rare but somewhat more abundant category of unusual plants is called, simply, RARE.  Plants in this category are known to exist in between 21 to 100 extant sites.  One of those sites is our own Moreau Lake State Park, where I have found two species that fall within that classification.  First is the spectacularly beautiful Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum).  

Of all the state-listed plants we have in the park, this is perhaps the showiest, with blooms as big as two inches across, and standing on stems almost 4 feet high.  I’d found a few of these plants for years on one of the Hudson islands, but the biggest patch I’ve ever seen is one I found in the property that’s soon to be among the park’s newest land acquisitions, the Smith Farm Parcel.

A second plant we have in the RARE category is this pretty little thing called Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula).  

Actually, when you see how abundantly this flower grows on the sandy shores of Moreau Lake, it’s hard to believe it could ever have been considered a rare plant, but that’s how it had been listed in the New York Flora Association’s Plant Atlas.  I did learn that it was recently moved from the RARE to the WATCH list, which means it’s becoming more abundant in the state, but its populations will still be monitored.   At any rate, it’s certainly not a rare plant in Moreau Lake State Park and hasn’t been for many years!  Start looking for it along the lakeshore in early September.

 The Orchids of Moreau Lake State Park
OK, those are all the plants I have found in the park (so far!) that are classified by the state as truly rare species.  But we have another category of protected plants that are classified as EXPLOITABLY VULNERABLE.  These are plants that, even if they’re abundant now, are likely to become threatened in the future and so are protected by law. Within that category are many of our state’s native orchids – all those that aren’t already classified as Endangered, Threatened, or Rare -- and Moreau Lake State Park has LOTS of orchids.  Many folks are surprised to learn that New York is home to at least 60 species of native orchid. And 12 of those species grow right here in our favorite park.

The Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is probably our showiest – and certainly the most abundant – of all our orchids in the park.  

When this lovely orchid finds a habitat it likes, it can thrive by dozens at a site. It is happiest in sandy soil under pines, a habitat that is quite common at Moreau.

Our next two orchids are among our least showy, requiring a close look at their blooms to appreciate their “orchid-ness.”  I’m talking about our two Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera spp.), both of which bear tiny white florets along an erect central stalk.  The florets of both species look very much alike, and here is a close-up photo of one of them.  (I believe this floret belongs to the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, due to its furry hairs.)

What really sets these two species apart are their leaves, which lie in basal rosettes close to the ground.  Here are the dark-green, boldly patterned, curvaceous leaves of the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens).  

And here are the paler, more subtly patterned leaves of the Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (G. tesselata).

And here’s a photo of the entire plant. 

As the leaves reveal, this happens to be the Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain, but the Downy ones look very similar.

Our next two orchid species – the Ladies’ Tresses Orchids -- are not very showy either, although their flowers are marginally larger.  Much like the Rattlesnake Plantains, the Ladies’ Tresses bear spikes of small white flowers on erect central stalks.  Of the two, our more abundant species is the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua), with pure white florets that have gracefully downward-curving lower lips. 

I find abundant numbers of these pretty orchids along the lake shore in early September.

A much earlier bloomer, the Shining Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lucida) is a somewhat smaller plant with florets that have a distinctly yellow lower lip. 

I find the Shining Ladies' Tresses much less frequently.  If I’m lucky, I might find one or two plants along the Hudson riverbanks in June.

Speaking of yellow, this next orchid has a scientific name (Platanthera flava) that translates as “yellow orchid.”  

And yes, this orchid is rather yellowish, but its common name, Tubercled Orchid, is descriptive of another aspect of the plant.  Note the little bump (called a tubercle) on the floret’s lower lip.  Again, not a very showy orchid, but an orchid, nonetheless. This orchid likes its feet wet, so look for it along the river. I have found a large patch of 20 or more on one of the river islands.

At last, here’s a really flashy-looking orchid, the Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes)

Not only is the Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid a gorgeous flower, it’s also relatively common orchid.  Sometimes, that is. Orchids can be frustratingly fickle, failing to bloom where you found them last year. Sometimes, if their flowers get pollinated and they set seed, they may not re-bloom for many years.  But happily, if you keep looking around the same area, you might find some blooming near where you found them before.  I often find this Purple Fringed Orchid while paddling the Hudson in July (but rarely in the exact same location).

Ah, here’s another lovely one, an orchid that almost looks like the kind our moms pinned to their prom dresses back in their high school days. This is the Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).

Rose Pogonia is a wetland orchid that prefers an acidic habitat. Happily, Moreau Park acquired just such a habitat when the park gained ownership of Lake Bonita. If you go looking for it there in early July, better bring your binoculars, since it grows most abundantly out on the little islands that boaters are not allowed to approach, since paddling is forbidden on this little pristine lake.

Here’s one more rather showy orchid that grows in Moreau Lake State Park.  In fact, its name is actually Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

I don’t find the Showy Orchis very often though, because to look for it again, I would have to risk scraping the undercarriage off my car on the rocky Hawk Road lane that leads to the parking area for our Warren County holdings on the other side of the Hudson. The soil over there is calcareous (limey), which is what this orchid requires. At least I did find it once, or I wouldn’t have this photo to prove it.

I’m really lucky to have this clear a photo of my next orchid, the Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata).  

This little orchid is not only very small, it is also very greenish -- the same color as its swampy surroundings -- and it also grows in deep shade.  All factors my camera hates!  Trying to focus under these conditions can be quite frustrating.  And I also have to squat in the mud to photograph it, which can make my camera hand shake. (Not to  mention, making my fanny damp, as well!)

Those same factors also made it hard to photograph this Early Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida), which is only a little less greenish than the Green Wood Orchid and not any bigger, either. 

Those two orchids actually grow in the very same swamp, within a few yards of each other.  But because the Early Coralroot blooms earlier in the year before the tree canopy closes in completely, a bit more daylight penetrated the swampy gloom when I took this shot, so it was easier to get a focused photo.

OK, here's the last flower of this presentation, the Autumn Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. odontorhiza)

I’m guessing this photo might offer a hint as to how I got to be called a total wildflower nerd. Who else but an absolutely obsessed wildflower hunter would look hard enough to discover this almost invisible plant?  Not only is it very small and skinny, but also its reddish stems and yellowish bracts are almost exactly the same colors as the forest floor in autumn. 

Even when it’s in full bloom, it’s not much easier to see! That single wee little purple-dotted petal is all you get with this orchid, if indeed you even get that!

The Autumn Coralroot is actually a rather abundant orchid of the autumn woods at Moreau, especially along the Red Oak Ridge Trail.  A whole bunch of them used to grow in a wooded area by the beach parking lot, but then the park’s grounds crews blew several feet of fallen leaves over them.  I haven’t found them there again for a couple of years.  But you can bet I’ll still keep searching for them.

And if anyone wants to come along as I search for plants, I’d be happy to have you join me.  Just be aware, though, that it sometimes takes me an hour or more to cover a hundred yards!  But who knows?  We might just find some more rare species.  I hope it’s obvious, from what we’ve seen here, that Moreau lake State Park sure is a great place to look for them.


Woody Meristem said...

Very nice presentation -- congratulations and you obviously kept it under ten hours.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your botanizing! From a Skidmore biology graduate.