Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The River in Bloom

This chilly morning sounded a warning:  Summer is speeding by! That was all the spur I needed to grab my canoe on this sweet sunny day and head to the Hudson, especially now as the high-season flowers are turning the riverbanks into Mother Nature's spectacular garden.  Time to go see what's in bloom.

My favorite stretch of the Hudson lies between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams, where the river runs back into quiet bays sheltered from the wind.  I've been paddling these waters for more than 20 years, marveling at the wonderful variety of native wildflowers that ornament these banks, thriving despite frequent flooding as water levels rise and fall with dam operations.

Over all these years, I've developed a sense of stewardship toward these native flowers, and I've pulled every stalk of Purple Loosestrife I could find, hoping to quell the spread of this very invasive alien species along these shores.  By now, I hardly ever see it here, but today I thought I spied one of its tall purple spikes at the back of a bay, and I hurriedly paddled over to pull it out.  But as I drew near, my determination turned to delight, for instead of Purple Loosestrife, here was a single spire of the beautiful Smaller Purple Fringed Orchis (Platanthera psycodes).  I had thought I had missed its bloom time this year, but here was one lovely late-bloomer!

Orchids are fickle bloomers, so I can never count on finding a Purple Fringed Orchid at the same site or time each year, and some years I fail to find any at all.  But I certainly CAN count on finding Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) along these banks each year, and I was delighted to see that this gorgeous flower's season has just begun.

Individual spires of this super-saturated red flower blaze like beacons along the shore now, but it won't be long before masses of them crowd the banks in spectacular display.

The flowers of Arrow Arum (Peltranda virginica) exist at the opposite end of the spectrum of spectacular, although the foliage clumps possess their own kind of beauty.  And the flowers are quite interesting, if you can find them.

I had to search among the leaf stalks to find the Arum's flower, which consists of a cream-colored spadix tucked within a green spathe with ruffled edges.

Sharing the edges of this watery habitat are the pretty blue blooms of Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens).

Golden Pert (Gratiola aurea) not only doesn't mind getting its feet wet, it doesn't mind going in over its head, either.  The water level in the river was relatively low this afternoon, but if it were to rise at a later time to completely cover this rock-wreathing clump, the little yellow trumpet-shaped flowers would just keep on blooming underwater.

Bright sunlight illuminates tall stalks of purple Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) against the dark shade of the forest.

It amazes me how every year the landscape of this marshy area undergoes change, although the individual flowers remain the same.  Looking through my photo files, I found a shot from four years ago that shows a parade of Steeplebush spires (Spiraea tomentosa) populating the very same rock where the Pickerelweed blooms this year.  There was Steeplebush blooming in this marsh today, but not in as spectacular array as four years ago.  What a lucky event that was, with the water, the light, and the flowers all caught at the perfect moment.  Sometimes the beauty of this place just takes my breath away!

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) was adding its own charms to the landscape today, with its vivid-pink bicolored blooms.

I often search among milkweed to see if any unfortunate insects might need to be freed from the florets' legtraps, but this Long-horned flower Beetle was too far gone for my help to avail.  And besides, spiders need to eat, too.

Another critter surprise was this colorful Northern Water Snake, which dived underwater and lay very still, hoping (I'm guessing) that maybe I wouldn't see it.  I have never seen such a brightly colored pattern on this snake before.  They often look just dark brown.  I had to google images of this species to be sure it was a Northern Water Snake.

Ultimately, I DID find some Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), but just one plant.  And it wasn't there very long.  I often wish I could leave it to add its beauty to the mix of marvelous wildflowers, but I'm afraid its invasive habit could eventually drive all other flowers out.

I'm wondering if Purple Loosestrife might be evolving to mind its manners.  On a visit to Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa yesterday, I found it joining a mix of flowers blooming in a wet meadow, and it wasn't dominating the site.  There were healthy plants of Tall Goldenrod and Boneset among this mix as well, and when these species open their buds they will add their own blooms to the riot of colors.  I've been observing this meadow for several years, and the native plants do seem to be holding their own to keep the alien loosestrife in balance.

Another encouraging sign was the presence of these Japanese Beetles chowing down on the loosestrife.  One alien invader has found another!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It's Official: Endangered Plant Thrives at Moreau Lake State Park

Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum) is certainly not the showiest of New York's native flowers, with its tiny white purple-polka-dotted blooms set in rather scraggly heads atop spindly stalks. But it IS one of New York's most endangered plants, with only five other populations documented to exist in all of the state. But now we can officially count a sixth one, on the shore of the lake at Moreau Lake State Park. On Friday this past week, park manager Peter Iskenderian and I escorted New York Natural Heritage Program botanist Rich Ring to the site, where we documented the extent of the population, counting 273 individual thriving plants. A very healthy population indeed, possibly the largest and healthiest in the state!

Just one more reason to support this wonderful state park, with its nearly 7,000 acres of forest, mountains, lake, ponds, streams, waterfalls, marshes, islands, riverbanks, and a bog -- all providing protected habitat for an amazing variety of flora and fauna.

Friday, July 25, 2014

On the Shores of the Hudson and Hoosic

Oh, what a glorious day we had to explore the shores of two rivers!  It was sunny but cool enough to enjoy easy walking along the Champlain Canal at Lock 4 near Stillwater, and then around the bend to where the Hoosic River pours into the Hudson.  About a dozen of us in the Thursday Naturalists were led by our friend Ed Miller, who kept a careful count of all the many fascinating plants we found, including one he is showing to our friend Peg in the photo below.

The Hudson shore was as lovely and fragrant as any garden, with an expansive patch of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) sharing its grassy plot with Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare), each plant releasing its own minty scent as we moved among them to observe their beauty at close range.

Most of the Bergamot flowers were a pale lavender,  except for this trio of flowers that erupted in an explosion of deeper magenta.

We weren't the only creatures enjoying these flowers today.  A Clearwing Moth, which hovers and hums just like its look-alike hummingbird, was flitting from bloom to bloom, sipping nectar from each.

Nearby, a Long-legged Fly was resting on the leaf of Hairy Bushclover (Lespedeza hirta), its shiny metallic body as bright as any jewel.

This sunny bank of the Hudson is one of the very few places I have ever found Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), also called False Sunflower, and they were just opening their bright-yellow blooms today.  Oxeye differs from true sunflowers in that not just its disk flowers, but also its ray flowers are fertile.

You have to look close, to see the tiny curling pistils nestled at the base of each petal.  Only a few of this flower's staminate disk flowers have opened as yet, looking like tiny lilies.

After rounding the bend where the Hoosic meets the Hudson, we continued along a wooded trail until we came down onto a floodplain where huge Silver Maples arched their limbs over the water.

Further back from the shore, towering Sycamores reached up, up, up before spreading their big leaves to shade the area of burgeoning plant life below.

From this silt-enriched soil, plants grew to prodigious height, and masses of rosy Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum)  towered over our heads.

There were thickets of the dainty-blossomed American Germander (Teucrium canadense) crowding beneath the trees, their spikes of pretty-pink florets opening from the bottom up.

A close look at those florets reveals how they differ from other Mint Family flowers, with their distinctively arching stamens and the lack of an upper lip.  I had never realized how fragrant these flowers are, until one of our group pronounced that it was.  Now that I have breathed its delicious fresh scent, I will never again pass by this flower without stopping to smell it again.

Some stalks of Joe-Pye Weed were bending under the weight of massive tangles of Dodder (Cuscuta sp.?).  I noticed its bright-orange threads were hung with cream-colored flowers, and I also noted the presence of numerous bead-like orbs among the threads.  At first I wondered if these were the Dodder fruit, but then I noticed that these orbs were actually swellings along the threads, so I believed they might be galls instead of fruit.  Sure enough, after searching the internet, I found images of similar looking galls produced by the Dodder-gall Weevil.  Ha!  So even parasites fall victim to parasites!

Here was the find of the day!  We were puzzling over these huge green leaves atop thick glaucous stalks, when our friend Ruth Schottman noticed a dried-up long-stemmed fruit dangling from an opening low down on the stalk.  Could these be the Arum Family plant called Green Dragon?

It sure looks like they could be!  Although this spadix has lost the long tail that distinguishes this relative of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the evidence was enough to convince us that this was indeed Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium), and that we must return to this place again next spring to find this remarkable plant in bloom.  None of us had ever seen it before.

All in all, a grand day with good friends along beautiful riverbanks and green shady woods, where it wasn't just flowers that added their color to the forest floor today, as these little Amanita buttons demonstrate.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Portrait of Paradise: A Summer Day at Pyramid Lake

Morning:  The day dawns cool and clear, the lake as smooth as glass.  I'm almost reluctant to disturb its perfect surface as I launch my canoe.  Almost.  Who could resist slipping silently through that silken water?

In the quiet shallow end of the lake, Water Bulrush (Schoenoplectus subterminalis) holds its needle-thin stalks above the dark, still water.

A closer look at the bulrush's curly inflorescence.

Thick mats of Water Lilies limit my penetration of the swamp.  So I sit very still and listen to the dawn chorus of the birds.

Old stumps and fallen logs form nursery beds for many damp-loving plants.  The bright-yellow flowers of Horned Bladderwort rise from a rosy patch of Round-leaved Sundew.

A closer look at that Sundew reveals the winged evidence of previous insect entrapment.

I have company this morning: this regal-looking Great Blue Heron moves at a stately pace not 20 feet from my boat.

Tiny frogs hop about on the Fragrant Water Lily pads, keeping their distance from that hungry heron.

Afternoon:  The breeze picks up and a small sailboat flies across the surface of the motor-boat-free lake.  Those comfy Adirondack chairs invite me to sit awhile to enjoy the view of forested mountains, as well as the lulling whispers of wind in the pines above my head.  Soon, I'm drifting off to another dreamland.

After my little nap, an afternoon paddle takes me past bouldered shores decorated by vivid pink spears of Steeplebush, while bright-purple spikes of Pickerelweed emerge from the shallow water.

A curious Loon surfaces near my boat and studies me with its red eye, before diving again and disappearing beneath the green ripples.

Evening: After supper, I slip my canoe back into the lake and find a sheltered place under an overhanging tree to watch the sunset.  I soon have a companion,  a spider who drops on a single filament from above and dangles before my eyes.  We sit quietly together and watch as the lake exchanges its colors with the sky.

The breeze dies down, and soon all is silent except for the haunting call of a loon sounding across the dark water and echoing from the surrounding mountains.  The lake grows so still, the stars begin to shine on the water's mirroring surface.

All is well.  Safely rest.  God is nigh.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Seeking Peace in the Mountains

I can imagine no place on earth more peaceful than Pyramid Lake in the Adirondacks. In these times of terrible violence, how fortunate I am to have such a place to retreat to, in the company of others who seek to live without damaging others. This is where I will be for the weekend, at Pyramid Life Center, praying that all who suffer or perpetrate violence may come to know healing grace, wherever they may be.

Pyramid Life Center is a spiritual retreat center that welcomes people of all faith traditions or none, to experience the healing power of nature and loving community in a place of unparalleled natural beauty.  Come visit their website,, to learn of their program offerings and to see many other photos.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Indulging My Flower Love

I just LOVE Great St. Johnswort! It's hard to find native wildflowers that are so remarkably showy, with big bright blooms, exuberant numerous stamens, and a fat green pistil shaped like a Turkish vase that flares at the top.  They would make wonderful cultivated garden blooms if they had a longer period of bloom than just a few short days.  Because they won't be with us for long, I returned to their river island yesterday to fully indulge my delight in them.

I know of only one place to find them, and they're easily seen as I approach by canoe, bright spots of yellow against the dark green foliage of the river bank.  Although they're classified as a rare plant in New York and many surrounding states, they must be very hardy to tolerate the conditions here, in thin rocky soil that is periodically flooded as the river rises and falls.

I pulled my boat up on shore and walked around behind the plants to enjoy how they looked against the flowing water.

How beautifully their golden blooms are complimented by the blue of the reflected sky.

Somebody else was enjoying these big beautiful blooms.  I believe that this is a Katydid nymph.

Many of the flowers had petals that were curling inward as they started to fade.  Too soon, those petals will fall.  But there will be many flowers yet to come, to judge by the quantity of fat yellow buds I found.

Sharing the same riverbank were many Buttonbush shrubs with their spiky balls formed of tiny white trumpet-shaped florets.  Working those florets over one at a time was this splendid Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, so occupied with its nectaring task that it completely ignored my presence.

When the butterfly worked its way around to the opposite side of the floral ball, I was able to have a perfect view of its ornate underwings and furry tiger-striped body.  Lovely!