Friday, September 11, 2020

Rare Plants Along the Hudson and Hoosic Rivers

Just a week ago, I drove over to Rensselaer County to visit Canal Park at Lock 4 of the Champlain Canal on the Hudson River. This is always a beautiful park to visit, with trails that follow the canal as well as the banks of the Hoosic River, which joins the Hudson at this location.  The lock itself is worth the trip, a place to watch both shipping barges and pleasure boats line up to pass through its gates.

But I was here to see if one of New York's rare plants had come into bloom.  And I wasn't disappointed. As I approached the junction of the Hoosic with the Hudson, I found abundant patches of Creeping Bushclover (Lespedeza repens) spilling over the low banks of the canal. I had never seen quite so many of its pretty pinky-puple flowers crowding its sprawling stems.  This plant is rated as a Rare species in the state, and has yet to be reported as blooming in Rensselaer County. A specimen has now been collected (thanks, Ruth Brooks!) and sent off to the New York Flora Association to be vouchered as present in this county.

I continued my explorations along the riverbanks, following a trail upstream along the Hoosic until I reached an alluvial plain chock full of interesting plants. One of the most interesting is this Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontia).  Its large leaves were fading now, but the flowers we'd found on these plants back in May had now yielded large clusters of shiny red berries, easily spied among all the withering greenery.

The view of the Hoosic River from some of its high shale banks is really quite beautiful.

While walking these wooded trails high on the banks, I spied these tiny cherry-red feet clasping a Lowbush Blueberry twig.  The owner of those cherry-red feet was one of the furriest caterpillars I had ever seen.  This is the caterpillar of the Apatelodes torrefacta moth.  Although it may look soft as a kitten, some of its hairs can cause a rash, so I resisted the urge to pet it.

Parts of the Hoosic River here have banks that consist of high shale cliffs, and with the water levels low enough this time of year, I could walk beneath those cliffs by treading carefully on convoluted rocks.  I'm always curious to see what plants claim this kind of territory as their preferred habitat.

Here was a plant that promptly caught my eye.  Yes, I know, it looks like just another weed, and even more so with its raggedy leaves and fading flowers.  But I recognized it as a fleabane (an Erigeron species), and possibly not just any old fleabane. With its short stature and persistent basal rosette of leaves, I wondered if it might be the VERY rare variety called Prevancher's Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicum var. prevancheri), a variety only recently recognized in New York, rated as an Endangered species, and reported from very few locations.  I took some very careful photos and sent them off to some folks who would know at the New York Natural Heritage Program. 

When I heard back that this little "weed" sure met the criteria for being that extra-rare native plant, I returned to the Hoosic banks today to see if I could find any more of these plants and possibly collect a specimen so the species could be vouchered as present in this county.  At first disappointed and dismayed that I could not find the one I had found last week, I then felt extraordinary relief and delight when I found just dozens of this plant's leafy rosettes plastered tightly to the steep shale.

I ultimately collected three specimens, but not because I meant to.  Since at first I could see no flower stalks, I first extracted just one small leafy rosette, but as I did so, I did happen to spy what looked like a spent flower stalk amid a second leafy rosette. And then I saw an even better flower stalk, with much of the floral material still attached, on yet a third plant. Luckily, there were dozens more where these came from.  So now I will press and dry them and send them off to the experts, hoping they will agree we've found some very rare plants at this location.

While searching for this fleabane, I also came upon abundant masses of that other rare flower that thrives in Canal Park, the pretty Creeping Bushclover, but this time along the Hoosic instead of the Hudson.  

Two rivers, two rare plants. I've always thought Canal Park was a special place.   I just didn't know until now how very special it was!

UPDATE: On Monday, 9/14, my friend Ruth Brooks came back to Canal Park with me to get a more accurate count of the Prevancher's Fleabane rosettes that were sprouting out of the shale banks of the Hoosic River.  I had mentioned, oh, a couple dozen, before.  But on this day, looking more closely and working together, we stopped counting after we approached 200 plants!   And then, a bit later, we almost stepped on a specimen IN PERFECT FULL BLOOM! This was growing on shale that was closer to the water some distance upstream, and I would have missed it entirely if Ruth hadn't seen it first.  I managed to get a better photo of this one's flowers:

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Meadow, Sandplain, Pondshore, Creekbank!

 Meadow, sandplain, pondshore, and creekbank -- four different habitats in one morning's explorations! We are lucky to have such a variety of places to explore, all very close together. My friends Sue and Ruth and I made the most of the opportunity Tuesday morning, when we met at the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Milton, New York.

We started out in the wet meadow, just off the Northline Road parking area.  We had heard that there were orchids growing there, and we meant to find them.

And find them we did!  More than a dozen, spread out and hiding among the tall grasses of the meadow. But when a flower is as brilliantly white as the flowers of Sphinx Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva), it can't stay hidden for long.

Here's a closer look at the florets of Spiranthes incurva, with the sharply down-curving lower lips that help to distinguish this species of Ladies' Tresses from other species that might possibly occupy the same habitat during the same growing time.

Probably the most abundant occupant of the low grassy parts of this meadow was the Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia), with thousands of the pretty pinky-purple flowers sprinkled through the grass.

Here's a closer look at the freckle-faced blooms of Slender Gerardia.

A much sturdier plant, called Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), occupied a large area, raising  elaborate spore-containing cones atop handsome segmented jade-green stalks.

Peeking out from amid tall plants that lined the path were these starry-white asters.  Their relatively large size, open habit of growth, and slender, pointed bracts suggested Old Field Aster (Symphyotrichum pumilum) to me, except for one thing. The stems were not as hairy as most of my guidebooks described for this species. But it didn't take long, once I posted this photo on Facebook along with my query about it, to learn that this is, indeed, the aster Symphyotrichum pumilum, but a less hairy variety called pringlei, which goes by the common name of Pringle's Aster.  A new flower for me!

Much of this meadow, which only a few years ago was filled with Joe-Pye Weed and Boneset, has now grown up to an impenetrable forest of pines and poplars.  But extensive fields of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadense) still hold their own against such encroachment.  What a glorious sweep of golden blooms!

Almost every single goldenrod stem hosted galls, either the ball-shaped stem galls or the bushy green tip galls, neither of which ever seem to cause any serious damage to their hosts.  I was struck by how truly bushy this particular tip gall was, with narrower blades that were much more crowded than the ones I typically see.

It is always a welcome surprise to encounter a big, beautiful Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) arrayed among the flower stalks. If her size and bright-yellow-and-black pattern weren't distinctive enough, that zig-zag pattern in the web would be a strong clue to her identity.

After satisfying ourselves that we had found all the treasures this meadow held, we moved along a trail that would lead us to the sandplain portion of the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve.  As we passed by a  thicket of alders on the way, this little Spring Peeper caught my eye.  At first glance I thought it was just a brownish scaly patch on the leaf, but a closer look revealed the X on the little frog's back, a feature that no doubt suggested this frog's scientific name of Pseudacris crucifer.

The sandplain portion of this preserve is very sandy, and populated only by those plants that can thrive in such low nutrient soils.  One of the cutest of those plants is called Sand Jointweed (Polygonum articulatum), its apparently leafless jointed stalks studded with tiny white flowers. In fact, there are some very small, nearly invisible green leaves that cling to the green stalks,  and that must be all it takes to photosynthesize enough nutrients in this otherwise barren, but sun-baked, seeming wasteland. At least this tiny plant doesn't have to compete with many other plants for the almost constant sunlight.

Here's a closer look at the tiny Sand Jointweed flowers, delicate little things, just vaguely touched with pink.

Scattered across the sand was another denizen of this sunny dry spot, this one with noticeable green leaves and some remarkably shaped little flowers. The arching glossy stamens are a distinctive feature of this small Mint-family plant and no doubt suggested its common name, Blue Curls.  Its scientific name is Trichostema dichotomum.

It takes some patience to find the flowers hiding among the wiry twig-like stems of Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium).  In fact, I'm not sure I have ever seen them, at least not until they have yielded the flattened green discs of their fruits, surrounded by a translucent winged membrane. 

Although the ones we found today were rather small, these plants can grow to the size of a bushel basket, the whole thing held erect on a single stalk, which will break off when the seeds are mature and allow the whole plant to go tumbling across the landscape, spreading the seeds.  This plant was originally native to the Central Plains of the U.S., but it has made itself very much at home out east in recent decades, but only in sandy, low-nutrient places very few other native plants can thrive in. A very interesting introduction to our eastern flora.

There's another very interesting organism we usually find in this sandy area, a very strange fungus called Dyemaker's False Puffball (Pisolithus tintorius). Most of the specimens we found today were already past their prime and spreading their dust-fine, cocoa-colored spores.  Having neither gills nor pores, this fungus contains tiny spore-producing orbs (peridioles) within the dung-colored membrane that contains them all when the fungus is young.  You can see those tiny orbs in this uprooted specimen, as well as its very convoluted "roots."  This fungus, when young, can produce a reddish dye that once was used to color wool.  It also is known to remove toxic chemicals from polluted soils.  You can search my blog for my other entries about this fascinating fungus.  It really is a marvel!

We next moved on to the pond that lies at the heart of the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve, intending to search its shore for a wee little flower called Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica).  I had already found it this year, rising from the damp mud very close to the water.  But this plant is so small and thin, I still had to search and search for it, even though I thought I knew exactly where it grew.  My friends are here joining the search.

We DID find it!  Was it still in bloom?  Hard to say, since its yellowish flowers never really protrude beyond its green sepals.  But I think I see green seeds protruding, so that would indicate the flowers are now producing their fruit.

As we moved around the pond to explore more of the shore, I was excited to find a large patch of Slender Three-seeded Mercury (Acalypha gracilens).  Its more common cousin, the standard Three-seeded Mercury (A. rhomboidea), grows in just about every vacant lot and sidewalk crack, but this species is much less common.  In this photo, you can see the winged bracts that envelop the three-seeded flowers. These bracts resemble the wings on the heels of the Roman god Mercury, hence the origin of the common name.

Three-seeded Mercury is in the Spurge Family, so we were not that surprised to find a couple of other spurges growing nearby.  This Spotted Spurge (Euphorbia maculatum) is a common "weed" (although a native one) of sidewalk cracks and hard-packed dirt, but I can't remember ever seeing it in such glorious bloom. You really need a magnifier to appreciate its itty-bitty little flowers, though.

The flowers of Upright Spurge (Euphorbia nutans), another native plant,  are a little more visible to the naked eye.  For one thing, its more upright stems lift it closer to our eyes, while the apple-red "pods" that form part of the inflorescence are actually quite attractive. Sadly, most spurges get little respect and are often dismissed as common "weeds." I think people just need to look a little closer.

By this time, we were getting hot from this very humid day, and we envied these turtles' access to the cool water of the pond.  We were also getting hungry and decided to head over to the Burl Trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek just down the road from Woods Hollow. There, we would sit under the shade of a Box Elder Tree and enjoy our picnic lunches.

Our energies restored, I urged my friends to do just a bit more exploring today, walking a portion of the Burl Trail along the rushing waters of the Kayaderosseras Creek, just a mile or so down the road.  There's a Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) I found in bloom on this creekbank last week, an Endangered species that just showed up here about three years ago, and I wanted to show it to my friends.  But our footsteps were halted when we came upon this Giant Puffball along the path. It's hard to believe how this much fungal tissue can explode out of the ground just overnight!

But this particular trail is known for its gigantic occupants.  Here is one of the smaller plants of Giant Ragweed, a native plant that thrives here in great numbers and with many specimens growing to truly prodigious size.

Sadly, though, gigantic populations of Japanese Knotweed thrive here as well.  How amazing it is, then, that such a fragile-seeming native annual wildflower as Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) can shove that knotweed aside to make room for its own blooms.

In some ways, then, it makes perfect sense that Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) would find a home here, on this creekbank occupied by so many other gigantic plants.  Although its flowers were starting to fade already, we were able to spy a few of its rosy-purple flowers protruding from among a thick stand of Tall Goldenrods.

The pointed bracts on the involucres of Tall Ironweed's flowers (Vernonia gigantea)

I was so glad to be able to examine these Tall Ironweed flowers up close and show my friends the pointed bracts surrounding the clusters of florets.  When I first found this ironweed here back in 2017, I mistakenly identified it as New York Ironweed, believing the long points on the bracts to be more appropriate to that species. (Especially since Newcomb's Wildflower Guide described Tall Ironweed's bracts as "blunt or short-pointed.")

It was only later, when I had occasion to examine a known specimen of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), that I realized my mistake.  The bracts on this species are not just sharp-pointed, but the points progress into long thready extensions, creating an involucre distinctly different from those I had seen on the ironweed along the Kayaderosseras Creek.  No matter how long the points on that  ironweed's bracts had appeared to me, they certainly didn't look as long as these!

The long thready bracts on the involucre of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

The clincher turned out to be the number of florets in each flower bundle. According to Newcomb, New York Ironweed's bundles contain between 30 and 50, while the Tall species has bundles that contain between 13 and 30. I took a flower bundle apart and arrayed the florets to count them: 22 in all. So the ironweed that grows along the Burl Trail turned out to be V. gigantea after all!

Now I have to go back to my 2017 blog post in which I reported first discovering ironweed along this trail. If my mistake remains in that post, it's time to correct the error!

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Beaches are Back! Their Wildflowers, Too!

All last year and most of this summer, I have been deprived of wildflower walks around the shore of Moreau Lake.  Since Moreau is a kettle lake with neither significant inlet nor outlet, the water levels here depend on rainfall and snowmelt -- or the lack of it.  Two years ago, the water had fallen so low, it seemed as if some giant hand had pulled the plug. Broad beaches emerged all around the lake, beaches that were quickly covered with a marvelous diversity of wildflowers. But then came enough rain and snow to not only fill the lake to normal levels, but to fill it so full the lake rose well into the woods, and all the beaches with all their wildflowers disappeared beneath the water. The lake stayed that high all last summer, and quite a bit of this one, too.  I'm sure you can imagine how I felt about that!  But just in the last month or so, some of the sandy and muddy shores have reemerged, and just like magic, many of those wildflowers I was mourning have sprung into life again.  I could hardly wait to see what I would find when I set off around the back bay on a beautiful day last week.

The walking was a bit muddy and damp, but the path was broad enough that I didn't have to wade in the water to keep moving along the shore.

I was thrilled to find that the pretty little flowers called Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula) had exploded into bloom once again.  Once classified as a Rare species in New York State, it certainly belies that classification here on Moreau Lake's shores.

Here's a closer look at the small pinky-purple blooms of Small-flowered Gerardia. Their very short flower stalks help to distinguish this species from the similar Slender Gerardia, which bears its flowers on long slender stalks and also grows along Moreau's back bay (but not as profusely).

The Silky Dogwood shrubs (Cornus amomun) are far enough back in the woods that they doubtless bloomed and fruited along these shore all the time the water was high.  But I couldn't amble past them then, the way I was ambling today, delighted to see the lovely blue berries this dogwood produces each year.

I detected the fragrance of Groundnut flowers (Apios americana) before I sighted the clusters of flowers distributed along this plant's twining vines.

Here's a closer look at the fascinating structure of these unusually shaped flowers.

I was thrilled to discover a single spike of the snowy-white Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes sp.) claiming its territory once more. Just two years ago, I found at least 30 plants of this native orchid blooming near this same spot, and I feared I might never see them here again.  Here's hoping their population recovers if the lake levels continue to fall.  This species used to be known as Nodding Ladies' Tresses (S. cernuum), but recent taxonomic research has determined that this is really another species, called Sphinx Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva). The sharp curve of its floret's lower lip is one of its distinguishing features, as is its fragrance (although it was hard for this old lady to get down low enough to breathe it in!).

Here's a closer look at the beautifully curvaceous florets of Spiranthes incurva.

This next flower surely has been blooming away every year, even if I couldn't walk close enough to see it.  As its scientific name, Persicaria amphibia, suggests, this flower is just as happy floating on the water as it is blooming on the shore. Its vernacular name, Water Smartweed, suggests, however,  that it won't be happy very far from water.

Many Mint-family plants prefer dampish shoreline habitats, and that's certainly true for this one,  American Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus).  The sharply toothed lobes of its leaves help to distinguish this plant from the very similar Northern Bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus), which also has wreathes of tiny flowers circling the stems and shares the same habitat. Neither of these Lycopus species has a minty odor to its leaves.

Here's another Mint-family plant, called simply American Wild Mint (Mentha canadensis), that thrives along Moreau Lake's back bay. Unlike either of the Lycopus species mentioned above, the leaves of this plant have a very strong scent of peppermint.

I eventually reached a part of the back-bay shoreline my friend Sue calls the "Odonata Shore" for the preponderance of dragonflies and damselflies that populate this sunny and sandy stretch.  And sure enough, I saw quite a number of dragonflies darting from perch to perch. Very few, however, would perch long enough for me to take their photo.

I did manage to capture this male Widow Skimmer by standing stock still by the perch he had darted away from as I approached.  Sure enough, he soon returned to the very same spot, and I had my camera already focused on that spot.  Click!  And away he zoomed again!

Nearby was a patch of Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus), and look who came to visit its big yellow flowers! I am going to venture that this is an Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly, aware that I may be mistaken and would welcome a correction if I am.

A big patch of Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) was thriving on this south-facing shore,  its population appearing even larger than it had been before it was submerged for more than a year.

And look who's also back!  This is the Endangered flatsedge called Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus) we'd discovered back in 2018, only to see it disappear again underwater in 2019 and much of this summer as well. This photo doesn't reveal how truly tiny these plants are.  The largest of these three could have been covered by a silver dollar.

I couldn't wait to tell my friends Sue Pierce (standing) and Ruth Brooks about finding that Sphinx Ladies' Tresses along the shore, and they promptly decided to visit the spot themselves.  We are all trying to parse out a number of different newly-named species of Ladies' Tresses that all require close examination to decipher what makes one species distinct from the others. Here, Ruth is getting a very close look at a floret by examining it through her magnifying loupe.

We also went searching for more of the very rare Pringle's Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei) that grow in Moreau Lake State Park, and our search was well rewarded!  These tiny orchids are very hard to spot, being small and also colored about the same as the forest floor, but thanks to eyes much sharper than mine, we found a couple of patches of them we'd never found before. This is not the clearest photo of them, but I think you can see a few of the broad purple-spotted lower petals that distinguish this variety of Autumn Coralroot from the standard, non-rare variety. (We found some new populations of that standard variety, too.)

Another surprise awaited us when we came upon this Pinesap colored bright red.  I usually think of Pinesap as being yellow and blooming earlier in the summer, but a little research has informed me that this is a different species, called Red Pinesap (Hypopitys lanuginosa). Like the earlier blooming Yellow  Pinesap (Hypopitys monotropa), it has no leaves or any green color to photosynthesize, and it gets its nutrients through fungal mycelia in the soil.

Our search of the forest floor also turned up some interesting fungi, including these Fringed Earth Stars (Geastrum fimbriatum) that looked as if someone had left a couple of Hershey's Kisses cookies in the woods.

The pin-dotted surface of these fungi are likely the feature that inspired their name of Gemmed Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum).

I don't know what to call these wee little mushrooms that have sprouted up from between the scales of a White Pine cone.  Aside from their most unusual choice of habitat, they had very few distinguishing features that would help us put a name to them.

UPDATE: After searching a little further, I discovered there is a species of mushroom, Baeospora myosura, that grows from the decaying cones of spruces and pines and is a common species in northern New York. This tiny mushroom's common name is Conifercone Cap. I bet that's what we have here!

Here was a little friend we have learned to look for when walking through the woods.  Its name is Spined Micrantha, and a very strange-looking spider it is. Aside from being happy to see such an unusual (and quite small) critter, we also hate to push our faces through the orb-webs it hangs between amazingly distant trees.  When that happens, we are not only sorry to have destroyed the spider's handiwork, but also rather annoyed as we peel all that web from our faces.

But peeling spider web off my face is a whole lot less unpleasant than being stung 12 times by Yellow Jackets, which was how my visit to Moreau Lake ended that day.  Four days later, those stings still itch and burn!  For sure, I will avoid that spot when I return to these shores, but return I certainly will.  Especially if the water levels stay low or fall even further, revealing more and more re-emerging flowers.