Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mountaintop Marvels

Even though I was nearly a half-hour late meeting my botanists friends atop Whiteface Mountain on Saturday,  I knew they wouldn't have gone very far.  Not at the pace that botanists move.  And especially at a site so rich in botanical rarities as the summit of one of the highest mountains in the Adirondacks.  Sure enough, I had barely started up the trail when I found our excursion leader, Steve Young, and two other members of the Adirondack Botanical Society, Carol (kneeling) and Emily (peering), fully engaged in exploring what this remarkable habitat has to offer.

Steve is chief botanist of the New York Natural Heritage Program and as such is the go-to guy for knowledge about any of our state's native plants.  He's been monitoring this particular site for years and had prepared a checklist of over a hundred plants (natives and not) that had been found on Whiteface Mountain.   I checked off 55 on my list, but I know that there were some grasses and sedges I failed to take note of, since I tend to go blank when the talk turns to graminoids.  But all in all, it was a very good day for our little group of serious plant nerds, especially since we added five new discoveries to the list: a native species of Red Currant (Ribes triste), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Flat-top Aster (Doellingeria umbellata), Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-foemina), and Bog Yellowcress (Rorippa palustris ssp. fernaldiana).  While all of these plants occur quite commonly at lower elevations, they had never before been recorded for the summit of Whiteface Mountain.

One of the marvelous things about Whiteface Mountain is that you can drive almost all the way to the top on a toll highway, saving your time and energy for botanizing the distinctive alpine habitat, rather than huffing and puffing for hours to reach the open areas above the treeline.   And then, of course, the view from the top is another marvelous thing.  That's Lake Placid way down there below.

We did have to huff and puff a little, climbing a rocky pathway the last few hundred yards to the summit.  But then, we didn't exactly hurry up it, either, with so many fascinating plants to stop and examine along the way.

Covering the exposed rocks almost everywhere were extensive mats of Northern Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), shown here intermixed with spikes of Northern Bristly Clubmoss (Spinulum canadense) and the bright red berries of Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Here's a closer look at those vividly red Bunchberries.

Although we frequently find Bunchberry at lower elevations, there were many plants we found today that can thrive only in the harsh environment of exposed mountaintops, such as this Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago leiocarpa).

Another species of goldenrod that was happy up here was this Largeleaf Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla).

This little Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) has evergreen leaves with three leaflets, the leaflets three-toothed at the tip.   Unlike most other plants that have "cinquefoil" in their common name, this plant has white flowers, rather than yellow, and its leaflets number three, not five.  In fact, it has recently been removed from the cinquefoil genus (Potentilla) and assigned a new genus name, Sibbaldiopsis.

 I was glad when Steve pointed out these two blueberry plants growing side-by-side, to show the difference in their sizes.  Near my fingertips on the left are the leaves of our standard Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), which can also be found at lower elevations.  In the center are the fruits of Northern or High-mountain Blueberry (Vaccinium boreale), a much smaller blueberry found only in alpine habitats.

I mistakenly thought this was the plant I know as Rock Sandwort until Steve informed me that this is an alpine species of that same genus called Mountain Sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica).  We found quite a lot of these dainty white flowers with their fine spiky leaves tucked into hollows of the rocks.

Steve also identified many species of grasses and sedges that are uniquely suited to alpine habitats, including some that are exceedingly rare.  This Northern Singlespike Sedge (Carex scirpoidea) is an example of one of the rare ones, with this Whiteface site one of only six known places that it grows in all of New York.

Another plant that's exceedingly rare in New York is Lesser Pyrola (Pyrola minor), and it very nearly got wiped out in this, its only known site in the state, when a ditch was cleared to improve water run-off.   We felt very privileged to see it at all, even though its flowers had long gone to seed.

We found other rarities as well, including Boott's Rattlesnake Root, but I could not get a good photograph of it without leaving the path and trampling on the fragile vegetation. So I didn't try. 

One flower that certainly was NOT rare was Eyebright (Euphrasia stricta), an introduced species that was literally growing like a weed along the trail.  Well, a weed it may be, but I still think it is very pretty, and it's also a flower I rarely get to see, since it prefers more northerly climes than the region around my home in Saratoga.

Another flower that was growing like a weed along every roadside was this beautiful Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), and thankfully, this is a native wildflower.  Once again, this is a plant I rarely see in Saratoga County, although it is exceedingly abundant in the Adirondacks.


Andrew Lane Gibson said...

Incredible! I'd love to spend a day or two botanizing and exploring a place such as that! I've had my fair share of alpine experiences out west but those were all mostly before my 'botanical awakening'. Almost every single one of those plants you photographed I've never seen, let alone even heard of! Lovely as usual, Jackie :)

p.s. I promise my blog posts are coming soon...I've just been so swamped with work and other things after nearly 2 weeks straight of vacation!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

A.L., you aren't the only one who had never seen those plants. This was such a marvelous experience for me, as well, providing me with 10 new "lifers", not to mention some really rare grasses and sedges I sadly failed to take note of. Next time you come to visit, I'll take you there. I'm really looking forward to your blog about your visit out here this month, but don't stress about it. My memories of our great times together are still very vivid.

catharus said...

'Very cool! (maybe literally, too??). Yes, I've hiked that very trail on top of Whiteface; 'very memorable, as it's where I first saw a Bicknell's thrush (saw...not heard). But I had no idea there were 3 different species of Vaccinium there. I wonder how many there are in the fen I traipse in, this time of year... I find them hard to key out, with Newcomb's.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Yes indeed, catharus, very cool. But not so cool, temperature-wise. We quickly took off our jackets as the morning progressed. As for Vacciniums, there were five on the list Steve gave us, V. myrtilloides (Velvetleaf Huckleberry) and V. oxycoccos (Small Cranberry), in addition to the three I mentioned. As for V. boreale, I don't think you will find that in Newcomb's. I didn't. One of my botanist friends jokingly claimed he could get rich if he published a guide book called "Not in Newcomb"s. But it's still the best field guide I know, because of its keying system.