Friday, August 2, 2013

Back to the Betar Backwater

 It seems an unlikely spot to go looking for rare or unusual plants, this backwater of the Hudson River just above the dam at Glens Falls, accessed from the Betar Byway at South Glens Falls.  The sound of traffic from the nearby highway is clearly audible here, and the downtown buildings of the city of Glens Falls are visible just downstream from where this photo was taken.  The water is shallow and murky with underwater weeds that are caked with algae, and the banks are choked with what seems a solid monoculture of the highly invasive Glossy Buckthorn.  And yet, these quiet bays and the cliff-lined shores along the open river here have provided this nature nut (me) with some of the more interesting finds of all her wildflower expeditions.

Until last summer, I knew of only one site in all of Saratoga County to find Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) growing.   This pea-family plant with the oddly shaped yellow flowers is not listed as a rare plant in New York (although it is, in most surrounding New England states),  but it sure isn't one I come across on every waterway I paddle.   But now I can count on finding it here, holding its own against those bully buckthorns, with many plants thriving on a little island that bisects this Hudson backwater.

Another plant that thrives here is indeed a rare plant, one that is listed as "Threatened" by the New York Flora Association.  This is the Small Floating Bladderwort (Utricularia radiata), and it grows so abundantly along these shores, it's really hard to believe that it could be considered rare.

Its chubby bright-yellow flowers are held erect above the water by a whorl of inflated "pontoons,"  as it floats along, untethered by roots but trailing stems of hair-fine leaves that are studded with tiny sacs.  As with all species of bladderwort, these sacs are used to capture tiny organisms, whose nutrients the plant can then absorb.

There's another organism I always encounter submerged in these quiet waters, and that is the strange-looking globular blob called Pectinatella magnifica.  These gelatinous masses are colonies of bryozoans, or "moss animals," that form on the underwater limbs of toppled trees.  Last summer I had some difficulty finding just one colony, but this year it appears the population has multiplied significantly.

I managed to pick one colony up and discovered that it was so heavy I very nearly capsized my canoe.  The interior of this mass was a translucent greenish jelly, but the surface was covered with brown rosettes,  each rosette consisting of a dozen or more individual creatures called "zooids."  Each zooid has a whorl of tentacles that capture nutrients from the surrounding water as they sway in the gentle current.

My son has told me that he has seen these organisms in the ponds at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, and naturalists at Moreau Lake State Park have reported finding some in one of the ponds in the park.  So obviously, they are not rare.  But I had never seen such a thing until I first found them, looming like some kind of ghostly brains, submerged in the murky water here in the Betar backwater.


June said...


I never knew of such things. It seems so . . . oceanic. With the tentacles and all.
Once again, you have made me a little smarter than I was five minutes ago!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

June, I do thank you for your great comment. I never know what amazing things I may find each day I go out. The first time I found these Pectinatellas, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Stuff like that just didn't seem to belong here.