Saturday, April 26, 2014

Preview of Coming Attractions

Oh man, I am scheduled to lead a group of garden club folks on a wildflower walk in Cole's Woods in less than a week!  If this cold weather continues, will there be anything in bloom to show the participants?  When my friend Sue and I visited these Glens Falls trails today to plan my route, it sure didn't look very promising, at first sight.

But we hadn't gone very far before we saw the dainty foliage of Dwarf Ginseng, and a closer look revealed many flower buds hiding among its leaves.  I have never seen this diminutive ginseng grow so profusely anywhere else the way it does in Cole's Woods.  I do believe we will have quite a show of its tiny white flowers before the week is out.

Red Trillium, too, was heavy with fat buds, and if the weather just warms up a bit this week, we should see their deep red blooms on our next-Friday walk.

I doubt that our flower walkers will be able to spot these almost-invisible Golden Saxifrage blooms from the trail, and I'm not going to lead the group into ankle-deep mud to take a gander.  So I'd better wear my mud boots and go get a sprig to pass around -- along with a magnifier!

Another swamp dweller is Spicebush, but its bright yellow blooms are easily visible from the higher ground of the trail.  I just hope a few of the puffy flower clusters are still in bloom by the end of next week.

The Skunk Cabbage spathes have now opened wide, revealing the flowering spadices within. I wonder how many of the garden-club members attending on this walk would recognize these plants as true wildflowers?

There's no doubting the floral attraction of pretty Trailing Arbutus.  We found lots of opening buds, both pink and white, so we should have quite a lovely display by Friday.  Some of these plants are growing high on a bank, so we will also be able to enjoy their delicious fragrance, without having to stoop to smell them.

I certainly had to stoop to enjoy the sight of these tiny baby Wild Lupines, each palmate leaf holding a drop of rainwater, glittering like diamonds.

Here's a closer look at those leaves, revealing their remarkably furry texture.  Of course, the Lupines will have no flowers by the end of next week, but the purple leaves have a beauty all their own.

As for beauty, the tight rosy flowerbuds of Red-berried Elder are actually much prettier than the rather raggedy off-white flowers that will bloom before long.  I also love the purple cast to the leaves that surround the flower clusters.

Some more lovely leaves, these as brightly colored as tropical birds, surrounding the opening flower cluster of Sweet Viburnum, also known as Nannyberry.

Partridgeberry is a plant that delights in every season, its evergreen leaves and bright-red berries looking as fresh as they did last year, before spending the winter buried under the snow.  Their waxy white trumpet-shaped blooms won't appear for a month or more, but they still put on quite a show, just as they are.  Maybe their beauty could convince some gardeners to replace invasive groundcovers like Periwinkle with a native groundcover like this.

I'm glad I had the chance to review the trails in Cole's Woods today, since I will be away this week until Thursday, heading down to Mt. Kisco tomorrow to stay with my granddaughters while their parents are away.  I don't know if I will be able to blog from down there, but I do hope to visit nature preserves in Westchester County, which should be abounding in blooming flowers by now (behind the deer fences, that is).  A preview of the coming floral attractions of our own Saratoga County woods.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring Inches North

At first sight, the Skidmore Woods still looked winter-brown today, no haze of soft green in the treetops, nor carpets of wildflowers spreading across the forest floor.  Lately, the days have reverted to colder than normal, with nights hovering just above freezing,  so I wasn't expecting to find spring much further advanced since I was here last week.

But I hadn't gone more than a few steps into the woods before I saw the first of many Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) nodding their bright-yellow heads.

Fat purple stalks of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) held unfurling leaves and unfolding flowers, with rings of anthers bright against the dark sepals.

Most of the dark-brown Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) flowers were hidden beneath the bright-green leaves, but I did find one or two whose bulbous furry blooms were visible.

Mayapples (Podophylum peltatum) had thrust their folded-umbrella leaves well above the leaf-litter, with the single flower bud peeking above the leaves like a chick from its nest.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was enjoying its brief moment in the sun.  I could find no trace of these sunny little flowers last week, but today they were already dropping their snowy-white petals if I so much as breathed on them. 

In a week or so, I expect to see hundreds of Long-spurred Violets (Viola rostrata) lining the path and nestling among the rocks, but today I found but a single one, of a most unusual mottled coloration.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is sometimes called Wild Forsythia because its branches hold colorful tufts of yellow flowers that bloom before the leaves open. The name Spicebush is suggested by the spicy fragrance its twigs exude when bruised.

Here's a closer look at those Spicebush flowers.

Hundreds of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilus) still starred the forest floor, most in shades of white to palest lavender.   This robust cluster displayed a deeper tone of lavender in its flowers, with leaves that were mottled a beautiful purple and green.

Those mottled leaves in the photo above are left over from last year, having wintered-over under the snow.  They will soon start to shrivel and disappear as the season's new leaves begin to unfold beneath the blooming flowers. As fuzzy as bunny slippers, they reveal how well-prepared this plant is to endure the coldest of springs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fairy Lights in the Forest

With velvety buds in palest shades of pink and green that glow with a pearly light, the Striped Maples add a touch of enchantment to the deepest, darkest spring woods.

The twigs, too, are truly lovely, as if designed by a fine jeweler:  the deepest green and dark rich red, ringed with pale gold, all in elegant symmetry.

Happy Anniversary, Dear Draba!

We greet it with joy once again:   Draba verna, that wee little weed that Aldo Leopold praised in memorable words that bear repeating each year on the day I first find it.  Which was today, "searching for spring with my knees in the mud" on a sandy bank overlooking Moreau Lake.

Within a few weeks now, Draba, the smallest flower that blooms, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms. He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eyes steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.

Draba asks, and gets but scant allowance of warmth and comfort; it subsists on the leavings of unwanted time and space. Botany books give it two or three lines, but never a plate or portrait. Sand too poor and sun too weak for bigger better blooms are good enough for Draba. After all, it is no spring flower, but only a postscript to a hope.

Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible wooly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance -- just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.

-- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Down South to Shenantaha Creek

Who would think that heading just 10 miles south, I could find many flowers already in bloom that are yet to be seen this spring in Saratoga?  That's what I discovered on Tuesday this week when I visited Shenantaha Creek Park, just south of Ballston Spa.  For years I paid no attention to this park, with its tennis courts, bike trail, playgrounds, and picnic tables, thinking it offered little to a wildflower enthusiast.  But that was before my friends in the Thursday Naturalists showed me how to find the forested nature trail that follows Shenantaha Creek (also known as Ballston Creek) through steep shale gorges to one of the richest wildflower sites in all of Saratoga County.

Even though the day was dark and damp, I very much enjoyed my walk along this beautiful trail, listening to the music of the rushing creek as well as the pitter-pat of occasional raindrops striking the leaf-strewn forest floor.

When the trail reached a site where a steep shale bank was watered by springs and rounded by a tiny stream, I began to search for the flowers I knew should be here.  I could see the bright-green leaves of Toothwort at a glance, but it always amazes me that flowers as colorful as Red Trillium and yellow Trout Lily can hide out among the fallen leaf litter.

I somehow looked straight through a mini-thicket of purplish Blue Cohosh plants before my eyes finally spied the yellow anthers circling the centers of their brownish-purple blooms.  I believe that this is the species Caulophyllum giganteum, with flowers that open the same time as the leaves.  There is another very similar Blue Cohosh species, C. thalictroides, with flowers that are more yellow-green and which open after the leaves have fully unfolded.

This pair of Red Trillium should have been easy to see, except that I approached them from behind and it wasn't until I turned around that I saw the deep red blooms dangling from drooping peduncles.  The big green leaves were much easier to spot.

The speckled Trout Lily leaves were all over the place, but only a few plants sported the pretty yellow lily dangling down.  Perhaps if it hadn't been raining, the pendant petals and sepals might have been recurved, or perhaps this is a bud just beginning to unfold.

When I reached a flat area further downstream, I was amazed to see dozens of Dutchman's Breeches plants fully in bloom, the drooping stalks of snowy-white pantaloons dangling above dense clumps of frilly blue-green leaves.

As the rain threatened to grow more persistent,  I ascended a path up a steep ravine to the paved bike trail, a straighter, faster route back to my car.  I remembered this part of the woods from a previous visit as being just carpeted with all colors of Hepatica blooms.  Sadly, most of the plants had folded their blooms to protect them from the rain, but I did find a few still open, including one this lovely shade of purple.

There were Bloodroot plants in the woods along the bike trail, but they, too, had folded their flowers to protect their pollen from the increasing rain.  This made them look like diminutive white tulips.

As I hurried along, clutching my raincoat over my camera, I drew to a sudden halt when I came to this thicket of shrubs so thick with bright chubby buds they seemed to be strung with Christmas lights.

A closer look revealed that these "lights" were clusters of tiny flower buds encircled by sheathing leaves.  Well, what the heck are they?  Some kind of Viburnum?  Maybe a Dogwood?  I confess I do not know.  I brought a branch home and placed it in water, hoping it might open its blooms, and then I might be able to make a better guess.  Anyone?

Update: As his comment to this post reveals, my friend Andrew Gibson has suggested that this shrub is American Bladdernut (Staphlea trifolia).  Other botanical experts agree.

Second Update:  As both Andrew and others suggested, these buds have opened (as of May 1) to reveal the little greenish-white bells that prove they are, indeed, American Bladdernut.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Week in Flowers

Ah, with this warm sunny weather, the spring ephemerals are coming fast.  In addition to the Carolina Spring Beauties (Claytonia caroliniana) I mentioned in the last post, here's a list of the flowers I found in bloom this past week.

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilus var. acuta); Skidmore Woods

English Violet (Viola odorata var. alba); Skidmore Woods

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris); Skidmore Woods

Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia): Orra Phelps Nature Preserve

Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum); Orra Phelps Nature Preserve

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media); Yaddo

Pennsylvania Sedge? (Carex pensylvanicum?); Bog Meadow Nature Trail

Field Horsetail Reed (Equisetum arvense); fertile (tan) and sterile (green) stalks; Bog Meadow Nature Trail

Boys in the Woods

Whew!  It was a very busy week, what with Easter festivities and family visits and a birthday celebration for my eldest son.  No time to blog, since my youngest son, Peter, and his family arrived last Wednesday night to stay with us through the Easter holiday.  We were lucky the weather turned sunny and warm, so Peter and his little boys Alex and Sean could enjoy a walk in the woods with me at the Ballston Creek Preserve last Thursday afternoon.  I wanted to show them the great big birds -- Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, and a Great Horned Owl -- that were all nesting in the swamp at the edge of this preserve.

Here, Sean tries out the binoculars to get a better view of a squirrel's nest.  Little brother Alex waits his turn.

I had visited this very same swamp just a little more than a week before, which is when I took this photo of what I thought were all herons' nests.  But friends had since visited this site and discovered that one of the nests had been taken over by a Great Horned Owl.  When I looked again, more closely, at my photo, sure enough, there it was: a pointy-eared head emerging from one of the large shaggy nests (to the left, in this photo).

Our visit this week revealed that the owl was still right there, sitting deep in the nest.  This is a sight we don't get to see very often.

Over to the other side of the swamp, the Ospreys were busy tending to their own nest, a former heron's nest that they have been enlarging over the years they have returned to this same site.  At one point, one of the pair flew up and stood on the other's back, with a great show of flapping its wings.  I suppose the pair might have been mating, but the position did not seem quite right.  At any rate, this was behavior I had not witnessed before.

In the meantime, a large number of herons had congregated in the branches of neighboring trees, and I did observe some of them engaging in building new nests.  I wonder if these are young herons returning to their natal swamp?  Let's hope they all -- herons, ospreys, and owls -- are able to live here in peace.

I'm not sure the little boys were all that impressed by the avian goings-on, but they sure were excited to see the pretty little pink-striped flowers growing all over the forest floor.  I was, too.  No matter how many times I have seen Carolina Spring Beauties, I am always delighted to see them anew, one of the very first flowers of spring.

Before I could stop him, Alex had picked a couple of the flowers and held them to his nose.  His enthusiasm for all the woodland plants delighted me, but it was hard to convince him to let them remain where they grow.  At least there were hundreds of these Spring Beauties, so I guess one or two could be sacrificed to a three-year-old's excitement.

It was truly a pleasure to witness how the little boys enjoyed exploring the woods,  exclaiming over the bright red Partridgeberries they found, or hopping over the tiny creeks on stepping tones, or gathering pocketsful of goldenrod stem galls we later cut open to find tiny worms pupating inside.  Here, Alex has found something to fascinate him in the creek.  I truly believe little boys (and girls!) and little creeks are made for each other.

I had to restrain myself when I saw the bright green leaves of Ramps.  For one thing, I had been trying to impress on my grandsons the importance of leaving woodland plants where we found them.  For another, these were growing in a nature preserve, where removing plants is forbidden.  But oh, I sure do love the taste of these little wild onions sauteed in olive oil!    I hope I can find another patch somewhere in a non-protected site.  I promise I will dig no more than 10 percent of the patch.  Or maybe I will just remain contented with the memory of how they taste.