Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strawberry Fields and Cranberry Bogs

Tuesday, October 8: Touring the Strawberry Fields Forever Nature Preserve

There may very well be strawberry plants in the Montgomery County nature preserve called Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were not what we'd come here to see on Tuesday.  No, we were here, myself and a group of avid nature lovers from the Environmental Clearing House of Schenectady,  to see the magnificent flowers that are blooming here by the thousands this month: the rare and radiantly blue Fringed Gentians. We were also here for lessons in aster analysis from ecology professor Nancy Slack, who had prepared for us some simple guidelines for distinguishing among the many similar-looking species of asters that share the same open meadow habitat -- as well as the same growing season -- as that of the Fringed Gentians.

Our host on this spectacular blue-sky day was Jeff Leon (center, in the photo below), the owner and careful steward of this remarkable property, consisting of more than 70 acres of open meadows, plus 40 more of woods and wetlands, including streams and a pond.  After speaking briefly about the history of the land and its previous owners going back to first European settlement, as well as about his own conservation efforts here, Jeff led us on a tour of his land, guiding us along wooded paths and across open meadows to where the Fringed Gentians were unfurling their beautiful flowers to the warming sun.

Along the way, we stopped to admire sweeping views of the Mohawk Valley.

With many different species of asters blooming along our path, Professor Slack had ready material at hand for demonstrating the distinguishing characteristics of each species.  Here she is holding a specimen of New England Aster, easily recognized by the vivid purple of its flowers, as well as by a careful analysis of leaf shape and size of flowers.

The small white asters can often be more difficult to tell apart, so finding them right next to each other can be quite helpful.  Even before noting the differences in leaf shape and hairiness as well as the differing characteristics of the flowers' bracts, the difference in size of bloom is immediately apparent.  Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) has flowers that are quite a bit smaller, as well as being more crowded along the stems, than those of the Awl Aster (S. pilosum), which has a much more open pattern of bloom.

Many species of aster have varying degrees of roughness or hairiness to their leaves, but the very smooth, almost leathery feel of the leaves of Smooth Aster (S laeve) provides an immediate clue.  We also noted how the leaves clasp the stem, having no stalks.

And here was the prize!  We can stop to admire the many different kinds of asters along almost every roadside, but there aren't many places left where we can immerse ourselves in the stunning beauty of Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita). Thanks to Jeff Leon's careful maintenance of this flower's particular habitat,  mowing it yearly to keep woody plants from shading the fields as well as to aid in seed distribution, the population here continues to thrive and expand.  And we were lucky to have a bright sunny morning to coax the petals into fully opening.

There were other beauties, too, along our way, including many shrubs and trees in fruit.  I am always struck by the beautiful combination of porcelain-white berries on hot-pink pedicels that adorn the branches of Panicled Dogwood shrubs.  A cobalt-blue sky as a backdrop certainly adds to the impact.

Hawthorn trees were decorated with bright red fruits no bigger than cherries.

Sweet Viburnum shrubs (also called Nannyberry) held clusters of dark-blue fruits on rosy-red pedicels.  Just one more delight to top off a day of many pleasures.

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Wednesday, October 9: Berries, Bartonia, and Other Finds on the Bog

Another gorgeous blue-sky day, and what better way to spend this splendid morning than with my friend Sue, tramping a cranberry bog?  Especially this year, with a burgeoning crop unlike any I have seen in other years.  The  little ones in the photo below are Small Cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus), but we also found lots of Large Cranberries (V. macrocarpon)), too, nestled among the sphagnum.

Earlier this year, when we walked through this same bog (sorry, its location is secret), we could reach out and let ripe luscious blueberries fall by the fistful into our hands.  Today, we could get an eyeful of the blueberries' luscious color, the bushes' leaves lit up by the morning sun as if they were aflame.

Isn't it funny, that here in the midst of all this splendor, what delighted us most today was finding this wee little straw-colored plant, no showier than a handful of toothpicks stuck in among the sphagnum?

This is Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), and it doesn't look much different now than it did in full bloom back in early August, when it was slightly more greenish-yellow.  I guess you might guess, by the shape of its flower heads, that it's in the Gentian Family, but it's certainly far more modest in both size and color than the other gentians I've been admiring this week.  Although not classified as rare in the state, I certainly don't see it very often.  But then, it's easy to overlook.  I can't believe I actually saw it today.  An abundant patch, too, of nearly 20 plants.

This cluster of seed pods, too, was quite a find.  I believe it belongs to a White Fringed Orchis (Platanthera blephariglottis), which blooms abundantly here in this bog in mid-July.  Many times I have looked for the dried seed heads, but this is the first time I've found one.  Two, actually.  Right next to each other.  But no more anywhere on the bog.  I made sure to dust the powdery seeds off my hands before I left the bog.  I could also be mistaken about its identity, since I've never seen a White Fringed Orchis in seed.  Before now.  Corrections are welcome.

This looks like the seedpod of another orchid, too.  I think it might be that of Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus), since I found it where I know this bright-pink orchid blooms profusely in early summer.  I did find quite a few of these.

There were bits of Cottongrass fluff wafting around in the air, and at first I thought that that's what this little bit of fluff was.  Except it was kind of blue.  I was able to capture it gently in my hand and verify that it was, indeed, the winged form of the Wooly Alder Aphid.  Is this not the most adorable little bug, with its baby-blue fluffy butt?

The wingless form of this aphid is also remarkably cute, gathering in wooly clusters on alder twigs.  I'll have to go looking for them now along the river banks.  Here's a photo I took of them last year.


Andrew Lane Gibson said...

I think I need to visit you in the fall, Jackie! the sapphire blues of the sky and the vivid leaves are just breath-taking. I thought that bog looked familiar in the photo then you mentioned the white fringed orchids, so I knew that was one of my most treasured and loved spots on the planet :)

The Cranky Crone, she lives alone! said...

Such beauty took my breath away looking at what you see, thank you as always for such brilliant pictures.