Saturday, July 31, 2010

Riverbank Blooms -- and a Mystery Plant

Paddling through golden light along the Hudson banks

Another bright and beautiful day, and lucky me, I had arranged to meet my friend Sue for a paddle on the Hudson this morning. I wanted to show her that Wild Senna I'd found last week (Thanks, Ed!), which was sure to be blooming today. And so it was. Its large cluster of yellow blossoms shining in the sun were hard to miss.

Although this is a Pea Family plant -- and its leaves and seed pods certainly show that family's resemblance -- its flowers don't look very pea-like at all. What funny little pig-snout stamen tubes, positioned to spill their pollen grains on that furry, curving green pistil below.

On our way to the senna's location, we passed this beautiful patch of Narrow-leaved Gentians, their vivid blue flower heads standing out against the leafy green of the bank. Oh dear, is it that time of year already? I always associate gentians with fall, although the narrow-leaved species does bloom a bit earlier than other gentians.

Our next stop was a trio of little islands, where we beached our boats to wander around snacking on Black Huckleberries while we searched the islands for flowers. We had planned on a swim from the rocky shore there, but a brisk breeze and the cool morning air convinced us that wading around in the warm shallow water would be more pleasant. Amid a sea of glowing Golden Pert, these snowy blooms of Grass-leaved Arrowhead stood out.

I had never seen arrowhead blooms with these pink blushes in the center of each petal. I wonder if they turn pink with age as the Large White Trillium does.

The shores of the islands were aglow with clusters of ripening Elderberries and stalks of radiant Cardinal Flower. We stood very still for quite a long time, watching a pair of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds feasting among the Cardinal Flowers, hoping to maybe capture a photo of them. Well, folks, hummingbirds move very fast, so this is the best I could do with my little point-and-shoot camera.

Back on the open water, the wind at our backs, we paddled downstream a ways to where we had found an American Chestnut tree in bloom earlier this summer. Today, the tree was laden with green burry balls.

The chance that any of those husks harbor fertile nuts is very small, since there are no other chestnuts of flowering age in the area to provide the necessary pollen. It's quite unusual to find any chestnuts surviving to this fruit-bearing age before they are killed by the blight that eliminated this tree from American forests.

Our final stop today was to ponder a mystery plant we had found last week: these tall, leafy, many-bracted spikes towering over the surrounding Cardinal Flowers on a muddy shore.

Up closer, we see little purple wormy things emerging from a very bushy stalk.

Here's an even closer view of one of those wormy things.

On some of the blooming tips, I found these lumpy masses made up of minute green spheres.

A very odd plant, indeed! But something about it seemed so familiar. It had a fluted stem and alternate toothed leaves like those of the nearby Cardinal Flowers, and the shape of those little wormy things reminded me of the stamen tubes of those Cardinal Flowers. Here's a photo of those stamen tubes (a bit out of focus, but I think the resemblance can be noted).

So here's what I'm thinking: our mystery plant is a diseased form of Cardinal Flower, stimulated by some kind of infectious agent or genetic mutation to grow into this deformed version. We find similar deformities in the cases of galls and witch's brooms, although in those cases only parts of a plant are affected. This whole plant, consisting of 4 or 5 stalks, exhibits the anomalous structure. But who knows? I asked our state's chief botanist for his opinion, and he suggested that this is a witch's broom of a Cardinal Flower. I guess I'll go with that.

I just hope it's not contagious. The Hudson banks at Moreau are just teeming with Cardinal Flower, and I sure would hate to see them eventually fall prey to whatever has deformed this plant.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Big Birds at Ballston Creek

Since I'm scheduled to lead a nature walk at the Ballston Creek Preserve a week from Saturday, I thought I'd best check it out today for points of interest. This tract, which consists of old farm fields regrown into substantial forest abutting a marsh, has been preserved by Saratoga P.L.A.N. (Preserving Land And Nature), the land-conservation organization that asked me to lead this walk. I last visited here before the canopy closed in, when the forest floor was carpeted with Wild Geranium and Spring Beauties. Today, the woods was virtually flower-free, except for some Jumpseed along the trail and a short stretch of Arrow-leaved Tearthumb I had to shove my way through. And I was wearing shorts: Ouch! A better name for that plant would be Tearshin. Next time I'm wearing long pants.

This overgrowth may look innocent, but the shin-tearing barbed stems of Tearthumb were lurking within.

Anyway, there won't be that much to see in the woods -- except to marvel at how a forest recovers itself in only 50 years. Right now, the best part about this trail is that it leads to an open marsh and a fully-occupied nesting site for Great Blue Herons and one Osprey family. The Osprey nest is the first one I see as the path leads out onto the marsh.

When I was here last, I watched a pair of adult Ospreys come and go from the nest. Would the young ones have fledged by now and left the nest? My first clue came as a screaming adult set off the alarm that I had been spotted and then hurled itself through the air in my direction, wheeling in circles directly over my head before perching on a high snag to keep its eye on me.

If young were not still in the nest, there would be no need for such a demonstration. Sure enough, two heads popped up, and one bird hopped to the edge of the nest. Could these two both be nestlings? They look as big as adults.

These two Great Blue Herons look as big as adults, as well. I counted five heron nests from my vantage point (there may be more just out of eyesight), and each one had at least one long skinny neck stretching up, if not the entire bird. Or birds.

I hope we will still see all these big birds on the walk next Saturday (Aug. 7, 10am). For those who would like to attend, check the Saratoga P.L.A.N. website for directions on how to get to the trailhead. And be sure to bring binoculars. And if you have one, bring a camera with a better zoom lens than that of my little point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yarrow-hunting and Other Pleasures

High summer on the Ice Meadows
Another perfect summer day, bright and breezy, not too hot. So no more excuses, Jackie, get out there and do what you said you would do. I had promised a University of Rochester professor that I would procure for him some specimens of Yarrow from the Hudson Ice Meadows north of Warrensburg, and I'd been putting it off because of the daunting heat these last few weeks. But today was a good day to do it, so off to that stretch of the river I went, zip-lock baggies in hand.

Now, why would a botanist have any interest in Yarrow, that homely old thing that grows along dusty roads and railroad tracks and other "waste places"? Everyone knows it's just a weedy alien, right? Well, Justin Ramsey, Assistant Professor of Biology at Rochester, disagrees. He believes that our eastern North American Yarrows are, for the most part, native to our continent. His argument rests on comparing chromosome counts between our native plants and those that are imports from Europe. The Ice Meadows, a stretch of river banks heaped with masses of ice each winter, is known to be an area rich in native plants, so specimens gathered here have a good chance of being the native species. Well, we shall see. I'll send off my baggies tomorrow, then wait to hear the answer.

Actually, it wasn't easy to find those Yarrows, despite the open, rocky, and sandy habitat being just their cup of tea. There were only a few, high on the banks near the woods. What I did find lots of, however, were these itty-bitty Buttercup Family plants called Creeping Spearwort. I usually have to search and search and be happy if I find one or two, but today these tiny yellow flowers were spangling the shore like stars in the sky.

Woodland Sunflower was also blooming abundantly, but with flowers about half the size I usually find them. Most of the plants that grow near the water here on the Ice Meadows are dwarfed to some extent, probably because of several factors, including frequent flooding that washes nutrients out of the soil.

This beautiful Fireweed wasn't dwarfed in any way, probably because it was growing high up on the bank well away from the flood zone, an area of frequent disturbance. This plant is known to thrive on disturbances like fire, however, which is how it got its name. It will be among the first plants to repopulate a burned-over woods.

While hopping around the rocks near some spring-fed pools, I spied these bright-yellow chubby little flowers growing out of the shallow water.

They were poking up from amidst the water-logged leaves of Flat-leaved Bladderwort, but they didn't look like that species of bladderwort at all. Plus, the flat-leaved kind bloomed way back in early June. A quick flip to the very first illustrated page of Newcomb's brought me right to their picture. These are Humped Bladderwort, a name that suits them well.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Dreamy Summer Day

Today was the kind of day that summer dreams are made of: temperature no higher than 80, bright sun, cool breeze, a sky so blue you could see all the way to heaven. And lucky me, I had a date to go paddling on the Hudson with Ed.

Ed Miller's a really remarkable guy. Well into his 80s, he's still game to go adventuring, especially if it involves hunting plants, which, of course, is what we were up to today. We set off together in Ed's tandem canoe, a lightweight fiberglass boat of Ed's own design, and headed upstream toward the Spier Falls Dam. I rarely go this direction, since the shoreline that holds the most interest for me is downstream, but Ed recalled that Wild Senna grew upstream, and that's what we meant to find. And find it we did, after a bit of puzzlement. The leaves of Wild Senna look very much like those of Black Locust, and many baby locust trees were populating the bank where the senna grew. But a quick comparison of the stems was all it took to distinguish the two. The locust stems were reddish and sticky and prickly, while the senna stems were smooth and green. And then we found some with fat yellow flower buds. ID confirmed!

I'll have to get back here next week to get a photo of those flowers in bloom. Wild Senna is a new flower for me, and although it's not listed as a rare plant in New York, it's considered a threatened species in almost every state that surrounds us.

We were able to paddle all the way to the foot of the dam, a feat I have never accomplished before because of the usual strength of the current there, but today we were able to sail right up to it, no effort at all. The only water we could see coming through was over a small chute the dam constructors made to allow fish to pass without being ground to bits in the turbines.

On our way back to the boat launch, we stopped for a swim on "my" pretty little island, where we could jump right off the banks into deep cool water, then haul out and bake in the sun on clean bare rocks. While there, we noticed the current increase and the water level rise, a sign that the dam was letting more water through. I'm glad we were well downstream by then. We explored the flora of that little island, and I'm happy to say I was able to show Ed some flowers he hadn't seen before -- Clammy Hedge Hyssop was one, and Marsh Speedwell was another. Let me tell you, there aren't many plants that Ed hasn't seen, so I felt a little prickle of pride that I was able to introduce these flowers to him. We also found Canada St. Johnswort, with flowers almost as small as those of Dwarf St. Johnswort but with the red buds and distinctively narrow leaves that set this species apart.

As I said before, Ed's quite a remarkable guy. Not only does he have stamina that would put younger guys to shame and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants that professional botanists could envy, he also can see stuff that most other folks would miss. For example, he spied a floating clump of that very bladderwort I was puzzling over yesterday.

Luckily, I carry little zip-lock bags, so we plopped the specimen in there and studied it carefully with magnifiers after we reached Ed's car and the manual of water plants he had stashed in there. So! Is the mystery solved? Uh . . . sorry, we just couldn't parse it out. But at least today's specimen seems to have leaves, so maybe that will help some water-plant expert put a name to it. The jury is still out. (Or maybe this is an entirely different species!)

Update: Yes, it is an entirely different species -- it's Common Bladderwort. And the one I found a few days ago was probably Humped Bladderwort. Thanks to our state's chief botanist Steve Young and his colleagues with help on these IDs.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Oh Blessed Relief!

O blessed relief! After a cloudy morning and a brief sprinkle midday, the sky cleared and a fresh breeze brought cooler and dryer air. We may even need to sleep under a blanket tonight, for the first time since late May. And what a glorious moon is up there in the sky tonight!

I went back to the Hudson this morning, even though it was then threatening rain. While paddling here with a friend just a year ago, my friend had reached into the water and drawn out a thready tangle studded with tiny bladders and declared that it looked like a rare kind of bladderwort, Utricularia minor. But she wasn't sure. So that's what I set out to find today. And yes, I did indeed find it. Quite a few plants, in fact. I have sent this photo, as well as a couple more, to our state's chief botanist, so maybe he will be able to identify it. Stay tuned.

Update: State botanists have suggested that this is Utricularia gibba (Humped Bladderwort), not the U. minor we thought it might be. Since I found some Humped Bladderwort flowers in bloom up north just a few days ago, I will reinvestigate where I found these, to see if I can find some flowers to confirm the identification.

At any rate, the river was lovely today, both sprinkled with raindrops (just a few!) and sparkling under the sun. After finding that bladderwort, I had no particular destination and inched along close to shore, following the contours of the banks into every little cove.

I moved so slowly and quietly, this family of Common Mergansers never heard me coming. Startled, the mama dashed rapidly away, followed by her half-grown brood. (My camera tried to follow but couldn't quite keep up.)

The banks were ablaze with Cardinal Flowers and rosy with handsome Joe-Pye Weed. New this week were the Tall Coneflowers, holding their bright yellow blooms above all the rest.

Also newly in bloom today was this solitary specimen of Turtlehead, its creamy flowers pale against the shadowed bank.

Marsh St. Johnswort has been blooming for a couple of weeks, but it's rare to find its pretty pink flowers fully open. I love how this little plant has nestled in among the blades of this clump of sedge.

The reflected blue of that radiant sky added the perfect touch to the composition.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Steamy Day, a Few Rewards

Usually, a day-long rain like the one we had yesterday signals a change in the weather. But not this time -- unless what is meant by "change" is even muggier than ever before. Ugh! A truly horrible day it was to trudge through the woods, the very earth seeming to belch up heaves of sweltering heat with every step, clouds of biting insects circling my head, sticking to my sweaty face and gagging me as I snorted them in with each breath. As I said: ugh! So I guess I have truly descended into the very depths of nature nuttitude, since I just HAD to go to Bog Meadow today to check on those Downy Rattlesnake Plantains.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember my outrage at finding these orchids mowed down last year, just as a single stalk was about to bloom. Well, I'm happy to report that this particular patch of plants has rebounded with stunning vigor. I counted ten blooming stalks today where a year ago there was only one. Orchids are like that. Sometimes they seem to thrive on a bit of crisis.

Anyway, I was very, very happy to see them. Just look at this cute little blossom.

I know, I know, they're pretty small and not at all showy, so some folks might wonder what all my fuss was about. Sometimes I wonder, too. Especially as I sit here tonight scratching all my bug bites.

There were a few other rewards along the trail, such as this bright pink Swamp Milkweed bloom. My eyes were drawn to its beautiful color, and it looks like a bunch of flies were drawn to it, too. They'd better be careful, because sometimes flies get their legs trapped in milkweed flowers and they can't get free. (You can see a photo of just such a trapped fly if you check out my post for June 26, 2009.)

Those flies had better look out for the dragonflies, too, who love to eat other insects and who were darting all over the open water along the trail. A couple of them perched long enough for me to take their photos. I don't know their names, but maybe some of my readers do and will tell us. One was a rich velvety brown with yellow specks behind its violet eyes.

The other was a rich velvety red, with lacy black wings and coffee-colored eyes.

I was kind of surprised to see Flat Top Aster already in bloom. Hey, it's only July! There's a whole week left before August. But everything's blooming early this year.

The Virgin's Bower was also in bloom, but it seems to be right on schedule, according to my flower journals from previous years.

I had hoped that yesterday's rain would have brought us lots of mushrooms today, but this yellow jelly fungus was all I could find. I confess I didn't look very hard, since the heat and bugs were chasing me back to my air-conditioned car.

Once I got in my car and cooled off a bit, I worked up the stamina to go in search of another treasure, a big patch of Great Lobelia that for several years I'd found growing in a wet ditch along a nearby road. But when I arrived at where I remembered them growing, this is the sight that met my eyes: muddy ruts and heaps of dead grass instead of masses of radiant blue.

Dismayed, but not that surprised (there seems to be some horrid compulsion toward tidiness among most folks), I pulled over anyway. Maybe some plants had escaped the mower's blade and were hiding further back in the woods. And so they were! Oh joy!

Here's a closer look at one of those lovely blue flowers. See how the stamen arcs up through a slit in the upper petal and positions itself in readiness to plunge down on the back of the pollinator that lands on the lip below?

Such cleverness! Such beauty! How on earth could that mower bring himself to cut it down? I'll bet he never even saw it. Or thought it was just some common weed that might creep into his monoculture of a lawn. How I wish it would creep into mine! I actually planted some I obtained from a wildflower nursery, but my ground is too dry to suit the needs of this plant. I had always hoped to be able to find it safe along this roadside. Guess I'd better find the person who mows this spot and put in a plea for Great Lobelia's life.

Friday, July 23, 2010

No Paddling Today!

Ha! So much for that pimpernel's prediction of fair weather! (See last post.) Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. All day long, rain, rain, rain. My friends and I met at the river with our canoes and just sheltered in a car for a while until we concluded this rain would never let up. It's just no fun to canoe in the rain if you don't have to.

Ed went home, but Sue and I decided to walk about a bit, getting soggier and soggier as we went. Look: even the dragonflies were getting drenched.

As the rain came down harder and harder, I didn't want to endanger my camera by getting it wet, so we packed it in and headed to a diner for lunch. Then home for dry clothes and a nap. Some days are like that.

We really needed the rain, though. And I'll bet this brings out the mushrooms, so that's good.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Micro-flowers of City Sidewalks

Racing season starts here in Saratoga Springs tomorrow. For those of you who have no idea what that means, let me tell you, it's a very big deal. Some tens of thousands of horse-racing fans pour into our little city each day, bringing with them their big-city attitudes and lots and lots of cash, which they spend very freely, not just at the racetrack, but also in hotels and restaurants and retail establishments. To express its joy at this influx of cash, the city and its businesses go all out to spruce up the town with masses of flowers everywhere. And yes, all those flowers are pretty. But they tend to stir up the contrarian in me (could it be because I've grown to detest racing season?), and the sight of all that flamboyant flora sends me off in search of weeds.

I don't have to look very far, of course, since the weeds I am seeking pop up in every alley and parking lot and crack in the sidewalk. But sometimes I do have to look very close, since some flowers are so tiny I'm not sure I see them until I blow up my photos of them. This is particularly true of Doorweed, which is just about the tiniest flower imaginable. But for all its minuteness, it's also one of the toughest, seeming to thrive on the hardest-packed dirt and the most-frequent foot traffic. Other common names for this plant are Knotgrass and Ninety-knot, referring to its many-jointed stems.

A close relative of the Doorweed is Lady's Thumb. Its spike of bright pink buds is not hard to see at all, especially since they tend to grow in masses, but the individual open flowers often bloom unnoticed. A distinctive feature of Lady's Thumb is the V-shaped smudge that marks its leaves like a thumbprint and suggests how this plant got its name. Sorry, I didn't show a leaf in this photo, but I did find two tiny pink flowers in bloom.

Another almost invisible flower is that of the Prostrate Spurge, which loves to creep into manicured planters and flower beds and cover the gardener's carefully-applied mulch with its sprawling green leaves and tiny pink flowers.

Galinsoga, too, loves the fertile soil of tended flower beds, but will also grow in exceedingly inhospitable places, like the cracks between pavement and walls. Another name for this plant is Quickweed, which it probably earned because of its ability to sprout from seed soon after that seed is shed, producing several generations in a single growing season.

Carpet Weed is another tiny-flowered, adaptable weed that is equally at home in tended fertile ground or the aridest waste places. I found this growing in gravel that edged a downtown parking lot.

Edwin Rollin Spencer, in his marvelous All About Weeds, calls Carpet Weed "a sprawling example of designed humility. It is so humble that it is a genuine Uriah Heep among plants. It is one of those self-effacing, unobtrusive individuals that gets all and does all it was intended to get and do, and yet no one is aware that it is getting and doing it. The weed is seldom noticed by any one but the man with the hoe, and he sees it only as another weed, or if its persistence and shape awaken a thought as he hoes it into the soil, it is, 'How can such a frail little thing become such a nuisance?' " (Spencer's book, by the way, is a genuine gem. Ostensibly all about plants that nobody loves, the author can barely contain his admiration of the weeds he writes about. A man after my own heart!)

Not all the sidewalk weeds are that nondescript or nearly invisible. Asiatic Dayflower, for example, announces its presence quite vividly with its radiant blue flowers that sparkle with iridescence. If you get there in time, that is. As its name suggests, this plant has flowers that last but a day, and that day ends early, by noon. I think they are worth rising early to catch them in bloom. I have heard that the flowers are tasty, but I guess you would have to eat them for breakfast or, at the latest, an early lunch.

Another flower that is brightly colored but with a tendency to hide from view is Scarlet Pimpernel. I was lucky to find a whole bunch of these blooming near a downtown sidewalk today, although they are so small (1/3 inch) most folks walked by without noticing them. (Some folks, however, might have noticed me lying down in the dirt to photograph them.) Their remarkable color scheme is worth a close look, so be sure to click on this picture.

The open blooms must mean fair weather, since these flowers are known to close up when the barometric pressure falls, earning them the folk-name of Poor Man's Weatherglass. I guess that means good news for the opening day of racing season tomorrow. And for me, too, since I intend to get the heck out of town and join some friends for a paddle.