Friday, April 30, 2010

An SOS for Nodding Trillium

New York botanists are concerned that the Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) is "becoming more rare and may be in trouble." That's what I read yesterday on the New York Flora Association's blog, where botanist Steve Young asked anyone who finds this flower to contact the NYFA. So I'm sure you can guess where I headed today. That's right, out to look for those trilliums. They used to grow abundantly each spring along the Bog Meadow Trail just east of Saratoga Springs, but a few years ago their summer leaves got mowed down, and their numbers have dwindled alarmingly. I still find one or two if I search carefully. Here's a picture of one I took in mid-May last year, when I walked the trail with the man who maintains it, pointing out areas not to be mowed.

Since so many flowers are blooming early this year, I thought I might find a Nodding Trillium at least in bud. But no luck. I had just given up the search when I spied a few three-leaved shoots coming up near where I found those trilliums last year. I'm not sure, but these might be T. cernuum. I'll be watching them to see if they are.

Even if I didn't find what I sought, it sure was a beautiful day to be on the trail, so sunny and summery warm. And one of my very favorite flowers was just opening its buds: Star-flowered Solomon's Seal, its waxy white blossoms set off so beautifully against its blue-green leaves.

A Pin Cherry tree somehow got bent down low to the ground, which allowed me a close-up view of its pretty white blooms. The reddish-brown bark of its flowering twigs is diagnostic for this native cherry.

The Highbush Blueberry shrubs were heavy with bloom, the bulbous white blossoms topped with greenish pink calyx lobes that remind me of pixy caps.

All along the trail, Dwarf Raspberry bloomed, its tiny flowers almost invisible, but worth a closer look.

Maple-leaved Viburnum is lovely in every season: early summer brings clusters of tiny white flowers tinted pink, the autumn brings leaves of the most amazing purplish-coral color, and the blue-black berries cling to the shrub all winter. But even now it delights the eye, with tight-curled buds and glossy just-opening leaves, all arranged so symmetrically.

I know of one other place where I once found Nodding Trillium, but I haven't found it there for several years. That's the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton. On the NYFA blog I mentioned above, there's a map that shows the distribution of T. cernuum in the past. That map shows just one dot representing its presence in the Saratoga area, and Steve Young told me that that dot represents the report that Orra herself provided in 1926. What a shame it would be to lose this beautiful trillium from our area. So keep your eyes peeled for it, and if you do find it, please contact Steve Young at

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Windy Day Treasure Hunt

Clear and sunny today, not too cold, but the wind was throwing the treetops around like crazy. I'd planned on a paddle, but settled instead for a walk in the woods, hoping not too many branches would crash down on me. And they didn't. It was actually quite pleasant under the trees, sheltered from the wind, and the path was lit with warm sunshine, since the canopy has not yet closed in. I went looking for treasure, and, sure enough, I found it: the rare Goldenseal, just up from the ground, its leaves still crumpled but its petal-less flowers opening to the sun. That ring of anthers will turn more golden as the pollen ripens.

Close by that Goldenseal I found the first Jack-in-the-Pulpit I've seen this year. But this one looks like it's got the yellow measles. I'm sure these spots are a sign that the plant's not too healthy, but they actually look kind of pretty, like polka dots.

Here's another unexpected beauty. These raggedy fading Hepatica leaves were growing on a steep bank at such an angle that the sun lit them up from above and turned them this radiant rose.

Speaking of rosy radiance, these Staghorn Sumac shoots put on quite a show, as well, with their glossy, curvaceous leaves emerging from stalks of red velvet.

These violets grew along the path and I almost passed them by without a glance, but something about them caught my eye. Hey, I said, those stems are fuzzy! The Common Blue Violets they looked like usually have smooth stems. So out came the Newcomb's, where I turned the pages to find basal-leaved blue violets with downy stems. Hmmm . . . could they be Northern Blue Violets?

Nope. The Northern Blues have a lower petal that's "soft hairy on the inside at the base." The lower petal of these violets is definitely smooth, although the side petals certainly are hairy.

Well then, could they be Wooly Blue Violets? Newcomb's doesn't show a picture but does describe the leafstalks and undersurfaces of the leaves as being "more hairy than those of the Northern Blue Violet." The leafstalks and undersurfaces were certainly hairy, so my guess is that these are Wooly Blue Violets.

I always feel excited when I find a flower that's new to me, so when I got home I Googled "Wooly Blue Violets (Viola sororia)" only to find that these are considered just a variety of the Common Blue Violet. So no great find, you say? Sure, they're not rare, but they were a great find to me, since I got to go through the steps of keying them out and coming to a conclusion. That's the fun of the hunt for wildflower nuts, whether the plant is as rare as Goldenseal or as common as Common Blue Violets (Wooly variety).

Besides, I did find a kind of uncommon violet: the Canada Violet. This snowy-faced violet is distinguished by a purple back that you can't see in this photo. I feel really blessed to find this lovely violet each spring, since in nearby states like Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey it's listed as threatened or endangered, and Rhode Islanders haven't seen it for many years.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Quick Revisit to Skidmore's Woods

Saratoga Springs didn't get the snow they got up north -- as much as two feet, I heard -- but today was cold and windy and threatening rain, and I didn't go out. Except to walk to the dentist. Pooh! So my woodland wanderings today were all virtual, revisiting photos I took in the Skidmore woods four days ago. This time of year, the flowers come so fast into bloom, I can hardly keep up with them. By the weekend here, the temperature might reach 80. Very weird weather!

Speaking of weird, I found all these snippets of Red Oak sprouts lying all over the forest floor out at Skidmore. I was wondering what kind of wind would bring all these healthy twigs down, when close examination revealed they had all been bitten off. I remember finding a similar scene last spring, only then the twigs were Red Maple. I'll bet it's the same bushy-tailed little brush-hog who's at it again: a Red Squirrel clearing its personal highways way up in the canopy.

Anybody know what kind of maple this is? It's not a Red Maple, despite its bright color, nor a Striped Maple, which has red twigs, but nothing that looks like this. The city keeps planting alien varieties of maple trees along the streets, so maybe it's one of those, escaped. I don't know why they can't stick to Red or Sugar or Silver Maple, our native trees.

Here's one of our most beautiful native trees, the Flowering Dogwood. I planted one in my backyard last spring, and the squirrels ate every single flower bud. But this year I'm happy to report they didn't touch it, and now it's gloriously in bloom. As are the dogwoods at Skidmore.

Here's another glorious bloom, the vividly red and intricately shaped Columbine. I found just a few coming on in the Skidmore woods, but I bet in a week, if that weather warms up as predicted, the woods will be teeming with them.

Here's a view of the Columbine's undercarriage, revealing just how intricate this flower is.

I promised to post a photo of Large-flowered Bellwort when it came into bloom, and here it is, quite a bit earlier than in previous years. I did not know that bellworts have petals and sepals that look alike until I saw botanist Bob Klips's website, where he demonstrates the fascinating structure of this blossom. Check it out.

The profusion of Large-flowered White Trillium in the Skidmore woods is worth a trip to see. There are areas of the woods where they grow by the hundreds. As wildflowers go, they bloom for quite a long time, and as they fade, they turn a pretty pink.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Still Icy on the Ice Meadows

What's that the weatherman said? SNOW!? Up to a FOOT!? Yup, that's what's predicted for the mountains tonight. Oh well. It's only April. Because we've been having such a freaky warm spring, we tend to want to rush the season. I know I did, heading up to the Ice Meadows on the Hudson River north of Warrensburg yesterday, hoping to find some of the rare wildflowers others have told me bloom there.

Well, the meadows were nowhere near being in bloom, what with the icepack only recently melted. In fact, thick deposits of frazil ice still covered the ground in spots, the shrubbery that spent the winter beneath them still bent from the massive weight of that ice.

Up high on the banks where the rocks meet the woods, I found lots of Early Saxifrage blooming, and a few Columbines just setting buds. Down on the sandy flats, brave little Bluets bloomed with abandon. And that was just about it, for things in bloom. But everywhere, I found the promise of flowers to come, such as this sprightly cluster of Columbine leaves, nestled among the rocks.

And here are the leaves of Canadian Burnet, a plant that blooms here profusely late in the summer. I had never noticed the delicate edging of its serrated leaves before. Pretty.

Because there were so few flowers to consume my attention, I paid more notice to the marvelous rocks, especially those near the state forest access on the east bank of the river just north of Warrensburg. I'm not sure of the actual geological structure of the rocks that form these spectacularly striped banks, although I have heard them referred to as marble rocks.

And some of them do indeed look "marbled," as in the chocolate swirls through a marble cake.

In some places the rock is very crystalline and of a rich green color.

Some rocks are a soft sandy beige, with touches of gold and gray and stripes of deeper color.

Here's rock that must contain iron, because of the rusty wash, and with cracks that look like captured lightning bolts.

In places, thick blankets of coal-black rock ooze over the snowy white marble.

I once asked a geologist to tell me about these rocks, but he promptly lost me in all the technical jargon that he used, and I just kept nodding and smiling and saying I see, when of course I didn't but didn't want to appear too dumb. There must be a wonderful drama here in how these rocks came to be, and I hope someday to learn it. In the meantime, I just marvel at how beautiful they are.

Delicious Lilies

Ooh, look what I found in the woods! At first I thought these soft green leaves were Lily-of-the-Valley, but a closer inspection (and a sniff and a taste) revealed they were another member of the lily family: Allium tricoccum, or as they're commonly called Down South, Ramps. Also called Wild Leeks.

I've read that Ramps are all the rage among foodies right now, so I'm going to keep their location secret, for fear of extirpation. I did dig a few just to see what the fuss is about, and I must say, they are delicious. Trimmed of roots and dirt, coarsely chopped (leaves and all), sauteed quickly in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, they really were yummy. Mild onion taste, the leaves almost sweet. I know that they figure prominently in Southern folklore, but I had no idea they grew around here. I probably passed them over before, thinking they were something else. Later in the summer, after the leaves have disappeared, they will bear an umbel of small white flowers on a single stalk. I think I will try to collect their seeds and grow some in my own woodsy backyard. Wish me luck.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Meeting Old Friends on the Way

Walking to church on this warm sunny morning, I met so many old friends on the way, I almost was late for Mass. Even if I had been, I don't think God would have minded, since God knows how much I love the little works of His creation, even if other people call them "weeds."

Field Chickweed is one of our few native chickweeds, and also a quite showy one. Relatively speaking, of course. Today they were spangling the grass below a huge White Oak in Congress Park.

Dear little Common Chickweed grows where little else will, even between the cracks in the hot dry sidewalk. Did you know that the young leaves of this chickweed are good in a salad? I wonder if they got their name because chickens love to eat them?

Thyme-leaved Sandwort loves the hot dry spots, as well, but opens its teeny tiny flowers for only an hour or so mid-day. And never on rainy dark ones.

Common Groundsel never really opens its yellow flowers, until they go to seed and then look like miniature Dandelions. But the color is bright enough for me to notice them in a flower bed and greet them before a gardener weeds them out. I have read that this plant contains alkaloids the cause liver damage to horses and cattle, but that smaller hervibores such as sheep, rabbits, and goats can consume them to no ill effect.

Crossing Congress Park, I was glad to see that the mowers had not yet slashed down these beautiful Cuckoo Flowers, sharing their spot of turf with purple Ground Ivy and sun-yellow Dandelions. The open flowers look snowy white, but the buds are a pretty pink.

The planters in front of St. Peter's Church have not yet been planted with summer flowers. That's how this almost invisibly tiny Purslane Speedwell managed to find a foothold. For the moment, anyway.

Most speedwells are some shade of blue with darker blue stripes, but this one is snowy white with no stripes at all. Or maybe just invisible ones that only the bees can see.

Lookin' for Lichens

Mycologist Sue Van Hook teaches a pine-needle lesson to one of the participants in a Lichen Hunt she led in Wilton on Saturday.

Well, there's an awful lot to learn about lichens. I confess I retained just a small bit of what mycologist Sue Van Hook had to teach us about them on the walk she led yesterday at Wilton Wildlife Preserve, but here are a few of the basics:

1. A lichen is an organism composed of a fungus and an alga in a symbiotic relationship, although sometimes cyanobacteria contribute to the mix.

2. Lichens can be divided into three different growth forms: Crustose (which look like they are painted on), Foliose (which look like leafy growths divided by lobes), and Fruticose (which are bushy or shrubby, some containing distinct stalks).

3. Lichens can be found on three different substrates: on the ground, on rocks, and on trees.

The rest of what's known about lichens would fill a big library, but the basic knowledge I came away with was this: Lichens are everywhere, but most of the time we don't see them because many are very, very small. Luckily, Sue brought along a whole bagful of magnifiers so we all could take a close look. (See that dark maroon patch right in the center of the trunk between those two hands? I got all excited, thinking I'd found an unusual lichen, but when I looked through the magnifier, I found liverwort instead. Liverworts are really neat, too!)

We must have made quite a sight, hunkered down to peer closely at all the marvelous detail we would miss with our naked eyes. But just like the happy children that joined our group, we soon forgot any inhibitions because we were so enthralled.

We didn't examine any crustose lichens (the kind that paint boulders with pinks and grays and greens), but we did find lots of the other two kinds, the foliose and the fruticose.

Here are two kinds of the foliose type, growing on a tree trunk. I believe the green one is a Green Shield Lichen, an extremely common species, but I didn't get the name of the gray-colored one.

Here's a tree limb with lichens both foliose (the orangey one) and fruticose (the bushy one) crowding against one another. And looking closely, I think I see some kind of black furry stuff in the mix. Another lichen?

Speaking of black lichens, here's one that I think Sue called Tree Jelly, and it's remarkable for more than its color. Apparently, almost all lichens this dark have cyanobacteria in their mix.

And now for another lichen notable for its color: British Soldiers, a fruticose form that bears bright red fruiting bodies atop its branching stalks.

This next one's a close relative of those British Soldiers (they're both of the Cladonia species), only note that the fruits are borne atop single, rather than branching, stalks. This has a wonderful name: Lipstick Powderhorn.

Here's another Cladonia family member, and I think it's called Trumpet lichen. There's a similar cup-shaped lichen called Pixie Cups, but that one has bright red dots around the cup's rim. The cup shape of these lichens promotes reproduction, for as rainwater splashes into the cup, spores released by those fruiting bodies are forcefully ejected, possibly to land where a new lichen body can grow.

We didn't find this foliose lichen yesterday (I found it last December up in the mountains at Moreau), but I think it's so pretty I wanted to see it again. It's called Orange Rock Posy. Don't you just love that name? It looks like two different kinds, doesn't it, but the green bubbly stuff underneath is the leafy part (called the Thallus) while the orange discs are the spore-producing bodies (called Apothecia).

Reading back over what I wrote here, I sound pretty ignorant, don't I? It's all "I think . . .", "I believe . . .", "I don't know . . ." Well, the truth is, I'll bet even Sue didn't know the name of every lichen we found. With hundreds of genera and up to 20,000 species to keep track of --many of which can be distinguished only by microscopic examination -- there aren't many people who know every one at first sight. The field guide I own (Lichens of the North Woods by Joe Walewski) includes just 111 northern lichens. But it also contains lots of good information about lichens generally, as well as a very clear lesson on lichen biology. Plus, the color photos are clear, and the whole book fits in a pocket. As for me, I don't need to know the name of every lichen I find (although that would be nice). The point is to keep on looking. And for sure, I'll keep on finding them, because lichens are everywhere!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Blossoms and Bugs Along Bog Meadow Trail

A perfect spring day, the air slightly cool but the sun nice and warm in a clear blue sky. I headed to Bog Meadow Trail today to try to find a small grassy plant I'd found in flower a few days ago and didn't know what it was. Remember this one, with the yellow lily-like flowers?

I'd asked this very smart and helpful botanist Bob Klips about it, and he told me that if the plant was hairy, it could be a wood rush of the Luzula species. Fat chance I will ever find it again, I thought, but lo! there it was, right where I'd found it before, only now it was no longer in flower. But I recognized the umbellate structure of its inflorescence.

So was the plant hairy? Indeed it was! Here's a leaf where it wraps the stalk.

And here's a whole lot of hairiness down at the base of the plant.

A quick Google search of Luzula species showed me many images that seemed to match my plant: Luzula acuminata, or Hairy Wood Rush. Thanks for your help with this, Bob!

There was lots of other good stuff along Bog Meadow Trail today. For one thing, the trailside was carpeted with masses of Dog Violet, a stemmed violet whose color is such a pale purple it looks almost blue. And flitting about were violet-sized pale blue butterflies that almost seemed like the flowers had taken to the air. The butterflies looked very blue while on the wing, but as soon as they landed and folded their wings so only the greyish undersides showed, they disappeared among the flowers. I could not capture them with my camera, even when they held still.

But I did capture other critters. Including this tiny lime-jello-colored bug with cherry-red eyes. My friend Sue thinks it's a baby Katydid. It does look very tender and infant-like. Update: I saw this bug identified as an Assassin Bug nymph (Zelus luridus) on the blog Squirrel's View, a blog that is definitely worth a visit. I have seen adult Assassin Bugs along this stretch of the Bog Meadow Trail. I read they can give you quite a bite, so hands off!

And look at this spider, all stretched out as if trying a yoga pose. My spider guide shows photos of various species of Long-jawed Orbweavers (Tetragnatha sp.) that sort of look like this. I wouldn't have guessed it was a spider if I hadn't seen its multiple eyes.

Yes, I know these Water Striders are out of focus. That's because I was focussing on the shadows they cast on the sandy bottom of the stream. If not for those shadows, I never would have seen those bugs.

Horsetails are among the most ancient of plants, so this is quite likely what the Paleozoic forest would have looked like. Only then the Horsetails were tree-size plants, and these are no more than a few inches high.

This is Toothwort, a Mustard-family plant that loves damp ground and bears too homely-sounding a name for such a pretty flower.

I found two different groups of Toothwort today, with similar flowers but slightly different leaves. The leaf on the right is more deeply lobed than the one on the left, but it doesn't seem deeply cleft enough to be that of the Cut-leaf Toothwort. At least not the one pictured in my Newcomb's guide.

I don't know if these are two different species or only varieties of the same species Dentaria diphylla. As always, opinions are welcome.