Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A Tardy List: New Plants From 2020

Recent upheavals -- both personal and political -- have distracted me from my annual New Year's task: recording here in my blog all new plant finds from the year just past. In the broader scheme of things, I realize, "Who cares?"  But over the now 12 years I've been keeping this blog, it has grown to be a rather comprehensive searchable record of regional flora, and I've come to depend on it to remind me not only of what plants I've found, but also where and when. So, just for the record, here goes:

Prevancher's Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicum var. prevancheri)

Yeah, I know, it looks like just another no'count waste-place weed, like our other fleabanes, natives though they may be.  But this one's pretty special.  Prevancher's Fleabane has only recently been defined as a distinct variety of fleabane, and it's now recognized as an Endangered species (S1) in New York State, where it has been found in very few places. I happened upon it in mid-September along the exposed shale banks of the Hoosic River in Rensselaer County, exactly the kind of habitat that Prevancher's Fleabane is known to prefer.  The short stature of the flower stalk was my first clue (our other fleabanes are leggier), but the persistent basal leaves this late in the year and dearth of stem leaves were the clinchers.  I am happy to report I found many more plants than this blooming cluster: over 200 of the leafy rosettes sprouting out of a steep shale bank in the same area.

Winged Monkey Flower (Mimulus alatus)

Okay, I personally did not find this unusual Monkey Flower, nor did I first see it in 2020.  No, my friend Sue Pierce first spotted its non-blooming stalks back in the fall of 2019 while exploring a creek bed at the Saratoga Battlefield with our group of botanical buddies, The Thursday Naturalists. After noting the long winged leaf stems and the short flower stalks (just the opposite of those of the more common Monkey Flower [M. ringens]), the consensus then was that this must be the Winged Monkey Flower.  When Sue and I returned to the site in mid-August of 2020 to seek it in bloom, we found abundant numbers of these pretty pale-purple flowers. There were so many plants (well over a hundred) that Sue felt free to collect a specimen to submit to the New York Natural Heritage Program, in order that this Rare (S3) plant could be vouchered as present in Saratoga County. (She did have permission to do so from the NYNHP's chief botanist.)

Here's another photo, showing the face of the Winged Monkey Flower. The photo above shows the long leaf stalks and short flower stalks that distinguish this species.

* * *

The two rare plants named above were the only native species that were new to me this past year.  The next two plants are both non-native, both of them introduced species originating in Asia and now gaining a foothold in the United States. It's fair to say I wasn't particularly happy to have found them, since both plants have the potential to become invasive.

Far-eastern Smartweed (Persicaria extremiorientalis)

Whoa! Who fed some Ladies' Thumb steroids?!  That was my first thought when I found these gigantic smartweeds at the edge of a thoroughly-disturbed-soil vacant lot on the Skidmore College campus in Saratoga Springs.  They stood on stems up to my eyeballs and with flower clusters a good eight or ten inches long, and they DID look almost exactly like the much more diminutive smartweed called Ladies' Thumb (long the bane of over-tidy gardeners, everywhere).  They even had the darkish "thumbprint" on many of the huge leaves. Except the plants were humongous. I later found out that this was another non-native species of Persicaria, related to Ladies' Thumb but only relatively recently established in northeastern North America. The vernacular name, Far-eastern Smartweed, is a direct translation of the scientific name, Persicaria extremiorientalis, indicating the Asian origin. The New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas shows this species as documented for only 5 counties in the state, so far, all of them much farther south than Saratoga County. Uh oh! Looks like this plant is heading north.

Vietnamese Balm, AKA Crested Late-Summer Mint (Elsholtzia ciliata)

I was with my friend Ruth Brooks when we saw this unknown flowering plant on the shore of the Hoosic River in Rensselaer County in mid-September.  Well, it sure looked like a Mint Family plant, with its square stem, opposite fragrant leaves, and small purple flowers.  But between the two of us, we know all the mints we were likely to find around here, and this wasn't one of them. Luckily, Ruth is a heck of a lot more tech-savvy than I am, with a cellphone loaded with plant-ID apps, so it took but a moment -- after she loaded a photo and pushed a few keys -- to discover that this was another Asian import, called Vietnamese Balm (and yes, a Mint Family plant). I later learned that local folks of Asian descent often grow this plant for both culinary and medicinal purposes, so it's not really so surprising that it's now making its way from kitchen gardens to the banks of a local river. The New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas shows it rather widely distributed across New York State, although not yet necessarily abundant. Not a happy find, however.  According to Wikipedia, Elsholtzia ciliata has been classified as a "noxious weed" in 46 states.

* * *

The next two plants are ones I thought I knew well.  But in the case of the aster, I failed to notice a pertinent detail, and I had the name wrong. In the case of the Spiranthes species, its name has been changed from one I've known, correctly, for many years. So, not new plant finds, but definitely ones I now know new names for.

Pringle's Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei)

Peeking out from amid other plants that lined a sandy path at the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa were these starry-white asters.  Their relatively large size, open habit of growth, and slender, pointed bracts suggested Frostweed Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) 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 pilosum, but a less hairy variety called pringlei, which goes by the common name of Pringle's Aster.  A new flower for me! Except that I've probably seen it many times, just calling it by the wrong name.  According to NYFA's Plant Atlas, the Pringle's Aster, "compared to the typical variety of S. pilosum, . . . grows in drier sites with less herbaceous competition, and more often is in more native type habitats."

Sphinx [formerly Nodding] Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva)

Sigh!  I thought I had all our local species of Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes spp.) down flat, according to when they bloomed: S. lucida in June, S. romanzoffiana in early August,  S. cernua in early September, and S. ochroleuca as late as October.  They're kind of hard to tell apart, otherwise.  Well, I don't know about the other species,  but the species we used to know as Spiranthes cernua (Nodding Ladies' Tresses) has now been assigned to a number of other species in addition to S. cernua.  Turns out, we don't really have S. cernua in Saratoga County, and the orchid we used to know by that name is really Spiranthes incurva (Sphinx Ladies' Tresses). At any rate, the Ladies' Tresses pictured here, which I used to call S. cernua, I must now learn to call S. incurva. It still looks and smells the same as it always did, with the sharp curve of its florets' lower lips and its sweet fragrance. It is quite a common species of this orchid in Saratoga County, and I found this one blooming at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in early September.

* * *

Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata)

This last find for the year was a small tree with big oval dangling leaves that had turned yellow in the late-October woods near Schuylerville. It was obviously not a sapling of the surrounding oaks and hickories and hornbeams, but what the heck was it?  Neither my pal Sue nor I could even hazard a guess.  A close look at the end of a twig revealed a new bud that was covered with a pale pubescence, and I could also detect a stipule scar that completely encircled the twig.  After posting the photo above  on a Facebook page dedicated to the flora of New York and asking for ID suggestions, these two features -- the pubescent bud and the encircling scar -- were exactly the features that convinced several expert responders that this was a tree in the Magnolia Family.  A Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), to be exact, a tree that is native to our northeastern region, including counties adjacent to Saratoga County (although not yet recorded from here).  I never even knew that we had any native magnolias around here!  Facebook can be an amazing source of information!

We could not find any signs that would indicate these trees had bloomed or borne fruit.  Were the ones we found (and there were many) too young as yet? Were there older and larger magnolia trees in this same woods that had already dropped their leaves and so we couldn't identify them?  For sure, Sue and I will return to this woods next spring, hoping to find Cucumber Magnolias in bloom. And if we do, I'll come back here and post a photo of the flower.  Unless I save it to post next January in my next year's blog post, "New Plants From 2021".

Friday, January 8, 2021

A Short Walk On the Side of the Road

 I awoke on Wednesday (January 6) to the grand news that a Black and a Jew -- both members of the very people singled out for murder by the Ku Klux Klan -- would now be the two U.S. Senators representing the state of Georgia. Georgia, the very heart of the Confederacy! Could the Civil War truly be coming to an end at last? And would our newly elected President now have a Senate that could aid him in bringing peace and healing to our nation? What joyful news!   But my morning elation was shortly dispelled by the horrors happening at our nation's Capitol Building all that afternoon and evening, as ignorant mobs smashed their way inside and attempted to prohibit the final vote that would make the election official.  Churning emotions sure interfered with my equanimity, and continued to do so on Thursday. Only a walk outdoors could help to calm me. What better place to go than to beautiful Spier Falls Road, which follows the Hudson River where the Palmertown Mountains fall directly to the river's  banks?

Many steep rocky ledges line the road, the craggy rocks dampened and darkened by constantly seeping springs.  This time of year, these dripping rocks are decorated with cascading icicles.

Tiny rills tumble down the mountainsides, and even in winter, open water dances from rock to rock, splashing droplets on overhanging twigs until the twigs are bulbous with pearlescent ice.

But the most spectacular ice awaits at several quarries, where back at the start of the 20th Century, rock was blasted out of the mountainside to provide material for the building of Spier Falls Dam,  which lies across the road from the quarries. On these cliffside ledges, seeping springs create exquisite bridal veils of icicles, with some of the icicles reaching lengths of  8 feet or more. As the winter continues, the ice builds up to massive thicknesses and acquires a beautiful shade of blue.

While walking in the woods beneath this cascading ice, I happened upon a fallen limb protruding from the snow that looked as if it were covered with bunches of carved ivory flowers.  A closer look revealed that these ruffled "flowers" were actually the undersides of a fungus called Crimped Gill (Plicaturopsis crispa).  I would guess it's pretty obvious how this fungus acquired that vernacular name.

I turned the limb over to see the tops of the fungus, a more colorful tawny orange that fades to ivory at the edge.

Where a constant stream of dripping water had erased all the snow from the forest floor, I came upon this colorful Wild Strawberry plant (Fragaria virginiana) looking quite fresh and springlike, although its fur-covered green leaves and red stems both looked as if they were dressed for winter.

I was pleased to encounter such a reminder of spring at this dark time. I'm going to embrace this find as a promise of happier days that lie ahead.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Pete Hornbeck: One of the True Good Guys

I am grieving this week the loss of a man who changed my life, even though he probably never knew it.  His name is Pete Hornbeck, and he created small lightweight solo canoes that even arthritic, overweight ladies like myself could carry alone to isolated waterways without asking for help, boats we could paddle at our own pace and into places we longed to explore, without being controlled by bossy guys in the stern. My own carbon-fiber Black Jack (pictured above) weighs just 12 pounds and is easily carried significant distances to wilderness ponds where no beer cans litter the shore.  Just 10 feet long, it has allowed me to wend my way through the narrowest channels of bog mats and small creeks that longer canoes could never maneuver.  I have shared with long-time readers of this blog many of the beautiful places my Hornbeck canoe has allowed me to explore.

While paddling my Hornbeck canoe, I experienced the wonderfully diverse variety of native plants that beautify our waterways, and I soon grew obsessed with learning all I could about them.  This led to my need to photograph them, which next led to my need to start this blog to showcase my photos, which ultimately introduced me to a larger community of wildflower enthusiasts and professional botanists from all over the country, who have since become some of my dearest friends.  

I counted Pete among my friends, as I'm sure hundreds of others have as well.  Pete's gracious and cheerful hospitality made every visit to his place of business a memorable event. He built a business that provided great joy to his many customers as well as meaningful jobs for his fellow Adirondackers, in a region where such good jobs are hard to find.  He also dedicated his life to preserving the kind of wilderness that those of us who love nature would want to paddle into. 

What a guy!  I will never forget him.  He died last week, quite unexpectedly, after enjoying an outdoor walk with those he loved best, his family.  My heart goes out to his loving family most of all.  But I know that many, many others also grieve the loss of this good man.

UPDATE: While pondering some of the life-changing consequences my little Hornbeck canoe has meant for me, I delighted to recall the first fellow Hornbecker/plant enthusiast I met through my blog, the noted Adirondack naturalist Evelyn Greene, now one of my dearest friends.  We first met back in August of 2009 to paddle together a stretch of the Hudson River at Moreau, where Evelyn introduced me to the marvelous world of mosses. To see how many outstanding adventures followed since then, just type "Evelyn" into my blog's search bar and prepare to be amazed!  Of all my accounts of our many outings together (on land or on water, and especially on frazil ice!), I think there is one that exemplifies the kind of wilderness adventure our lightweight Hornbeck canoes made possible for us "ladies of a certain age."  The post from August, 2011, is called "Bog-hopping, Bushwhacking: Three Old Broads and Their Boats."   Check it out!


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Back Outdoors!

It's been a while. Way too long since I'd ventured outdoors this month.  First came snow too deep and fluffy for this old woman with arthritic knees and bad lungs to snowshoe through. Then came the pouring rain and melting temps that turned the snow to boot-soaking soggy mush.  Then freezing cold turned the snow crust to shin-bashing slabs.  Add to this intemperate weather a lonely Christmas, dismay for our nation, fear about Corona . . . . No wonder I've been in a funk!  But then, Sue called:  "The sun's out, Moreau Lake has frozen over, let's go look for frozen bubbles!"  So out I went.

Moreau Lake had yet to freeze completely over when we got those 30-plus inches of snow two weeks ago, so most of the lake froze clear and black when the temperature dropped to the single digits the following week. This made for great conditions for methane bubbles to be captured in the ice as it gradually froze.

This is not the best year for frozen bubbles (see my blog post for 1/4/2015 for that spectacular year), but we found enough of their crystalline beauty to make us glad we had ventured out today.

Except for the echoing croaks of ravens and this muskrat domicile, we encountered few signs of animal life today. The crusted snow in the woods yielded no tracks of otters or foxes or coyotes, either.

A blustery wind had us shivering under our winter coats, but when we reached the broad swimming beach, a late-morning sun blazed out of a clear blue sky, enticing Sue to lie back on the snow-covered sand to bathe in those warming rays.

When we reached the south-facing shore of Moreau Lake, we found that most of the snow had retreated, leaving a wide swath of sun-warmed sand and a narrow band of open water next to the shore.

We rested a while at a picnic table here, enjoying the warmth of the sun while we marveled at the sounds emanating from the frozen lake.  Such eerie ice-music! It reminded us of whale songs or the pew! pew! sounds of light sabres on a space-movie soundtrack. At one point, Sue noticed that when the ice-sounds occurred, the open water next to the shore vibrated in response. Here she is, watching the water with her camera, hoping to capture in a video both the sounds of the ice and the sights of that vibrating water.

I tried, too, with my still camera, to capture those vibrations of the open water. They came and went so quickly, this was the best I could do.   Sorry I couldn't better recreate this amazing phenomenon of dancing ripples in response to those eerie sounds.  At least I was able to experience this, and I will never forget it!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Winter for REAL!!!

 Wow! The weatherman really MEANT it this time! Usually, when snow is forecast, I sigh and say "Promises, promises!" But it looks like we got nearly 3 feet. Luckily, we have only 40 feet of sidewalk to shovel. (Rest assured, Denis didn't have to do it alone! I joined him at the task.)

But my car has been plowed in where it's parked at the curb, the packed snow heaped to the windows. I'm getting too old for this!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

My Winter Wanderland

Oh look!  There was ice on the lake today! 

Ah, but it was just a thin sheet of it, on the back bay of Moreau Lake.  The rest of the lake still lay wide open, under a cloudless blue sky this Tuesday, with a bright sun warming the growing expanse of sandy shore at the north end of the lake.  Every time I've visited the lake this last month, I've found the water receded yet more, from where it nearly reached into the woods at the beginning of this past summer.

Because Moreau Lake is a kettle lake, with no significant inlet or outlet, the water level fluctuates considerably, depending on rainfall and snowmelt.  But the rapid changes in water levels over the last few years are quite puzzling, and are being investigated by hydrologists from the US Geological Survey. One of the possible causes under investigation might be the expansive development of housing in the adjacent area, where residential wells could be drawing down the water table that underlies the lake. To date, no conclusive evidence has been found to explain these puzzling changes in the lake's water levels.

It seems odd that we've had so little wintry weather so far this December, although forecasts predict we will have much colder weather starting tomorrow, perhaps even with some snow.  This milder weather has made for easy woods-walking, anyway, and I have been wandering some of our nature preserves close to home this early winter, enjoying what natural pleasures are still to be found this otherwise un-eventful, in-between time of year.

December 1, The Skidmore Woods, Saratoga Springs
The many limestone boulders that litter this forest floor are home to much of the only greenery still to be found in December, namely, the mosses, lichens, and liverworts, as well as some evergreen ferns.

I'm not sure of which species of mosses cover the boulder pictured above (Anomodon attenuatus could be one of them), but I do recognize the unusual fern that has made its home among them.  It's called Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), because of the way its elongated fronds "walk" across the calcareous surface, establishing new plants wherever the tips of its fronds touch down on the moss-covered rock.

Other boulders here offer a home to some lush green Broom Moss (Dicranum scoparium), as well as a patch of some pink-rimmed, trumpet-shaped Cladonia lichen.

A thick patch of this very lacy-looking Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum) has crowned a rock that is also home to a close-growing, dark-colored moss I don't recognize.

What looks like a fluffy green moss covering one side of this limestone rock is actually not a moss, but rather a liverwort called Porella.

It's easy to see how this flower-shaped moss acquired the name Rose Moss. Its scientific name is Rhodobryum ontariense, and it is usually found on calcareous substrates like the limestone rocks found all over the woods at Skidmore College.

Here's a little more "greenery" still to be found in a winter woods, only this is a fungus instead of a plant, and as its name, Blue-stain Fungus (Chlorociboria aeruginascens), indicates, its color is just as much blue as it is green.

December 3, Lake Lonely Trail, Saratoga Springs
It was late in the day when I visited this short trail that leads from a busy Union Avenue to the shore of the quiet Lake Lonely. A low sun cast long shadows across this wooden bridge that spans a creek.

The very dimness of the afternoon had me seeking the brightest spots of color I could find, and this thicket of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) certainly fit that distinction.

So did the dangling male catkins of a Speckled Alder tree (Alnus incana).

I doubt there are any redder berries than those of the Winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) that thrive in the swamp that lines both sides of this trail.

You would have to look hard (and brave some sharp thorns) to detect the small red winter bud of a Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), one of the many different native shrubs to be found in the wetlands that surround the Lake Lonely Trail.  Both the compound leaves and the petal-less flowers emerge from this single small bud.

December 6 and 7, Moreau Lake State Park
The day was cold and the wind was brisk when I took a short walk along the shore of Moreau Lake one afternoon.  A pair of ducks came winging in to rest on the wind-riffled water.

I'd neglected to wear a scarf to cover my ears, so I didn't walk long on this frigid day. A bright sun didn't add much warmth, but it did light up the empty flower bracts on this American Witch Hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana), so it looked as if the twigs were blooming with small yellow flowers.

It was still quite cold the next day, when I returned to Moreau Lake State Park to walk the Red Oak Ridge Trail with my friend Sue Pierce. But we stayed in the woods, where we remained sheltered from the wind during most of our visit.

We didn't always stick to the trail, but we wandered up and down ravines and searched along rocky ledges, seeking to find plants that stay green all winter. I was delighted to find three of our winter-green native ferns all growing in close proximity, so I could include all three in a single photo. At the top is Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), with its individual leaflets shaped like tiny Christmas stockings; winging out from the middle are the arching fronds of Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis); and dangling down toward the bottom are the lacy-looking fronds of Intermediate Wood Fern (Dropteris intermedia).

We also found numerous Dissected Grape Ferns (Botrychium dissectum) protruding from the leaf litter, some still as green as in summer, others either partially or completely purple.  I believe this is our only winter-green grape fern.

We found several different species of evergreen clubmosses throughout the woods, but this curving cluster of Fan Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum) was especially photogenic.

Many of our summer-flowering plants have evergreen leaves, and as we wandered around the forest, we found so many of their leaves still intact, we decided we needed to return in summer to find them all in bloom. This red-stemmed Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) looked quite pretty, snuggled up against the roots of a Yellow Birch.

The bright-green leaves of Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) looked as fresh as they had last summer.

Both Sue and I were quite sure these round green leaves belonged to a species of Pyrola, most likely the Greenish-flowered Pyrola (Pyrola chlorantha), since they didn't seem shiny or large enough to be those of American Pyrola (P. americana).

We had no trouble at all identifying these beautifully patterned curvaceous leaves as those belonging to Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens), since none of our other species of Goodyera display such a distinctively white stripe along the leaf's midvein.

That ID was confirmed when we found a well-preserved flower stalk ascending from a rosette of Goodyera pubescens leaves.  The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain bears a spike of small white flowers, and it is one of 15 species of native orchids that can be found in Moreau Lake State Park.

December 10, Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, Saratoga Springs

As I walked along the familiar wooded trail of this nature preserve near my home, I was startled to see that what I had always known as a wooded swamp was now an ice-covered pond, and it appeared to be close to encroaching upon the trail.

It was odd to see the spiky winter-shoots of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) -- not normally an emergent aquatic species -- protruding above the thin ice that now covered this flooded wetland.  Where has all this water come from?  We haven't had that much rain.

Aha!  Mystery solved!  Beavers have dammed the normally small stream that flows through this swamp, which of course has caused the water behind the dam to accumulate and spread out into a pond.  I suppose the trail stewards will have to dismantle this dam before the trail becomes impassable to hikers.

Other parts of this wooded wetland remained unchanged, with fallen logs covered with emerald-green mosses that seemed to glow in the dim light of the woods.

A closer look at those logs revealed a marvelous mix of different mosses, including this tight carpet of velvety Broom Moss (Dicranum scoparium [or fulvum?]) punctuated with individual plumes of Brocade Moss (Hypnum imponens).

This section of rotting log was ornamented with quite a varied mix of organisms: a gray cluster of spent puffball fungus, the thready reddish webs of Nowellia curvifolia liverwort, the flat-leaved shiny green liverwort called Lophocolea heterophylla, and what looks to be the beginning of a population of Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum).  All of these organisms play a role in returning this rotting log's elements to the soil.

At least five different species of Horsetail Rush (Equisetum spp.) inhabit this wooded wetland, but the only one I can reliably find this time of year is the miniature Dwarf Horsetail (E. scirpoides) with its tangled masses of wiry evergreen stems.

What a pretty sight to end my early-winter walk at Bog Meadow: a lovely cluster of pinky-purple Foamflower leaves (Tiarella cordifolia) resting atop a carpet of emerald-green Delicate Fern Moss.