Friday, June 3, 2016

The Skidmore Woods Yields Lost Treasure

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of introducing two Skidmore College students to some of the special plants in the college's North Woods, considered a botanical treasurehouse because of the richness of its limestone-underlaid soil and the many rare plants that thrive there. The two students, Yesenia Olivares and Sana Bando, had just been named as stewards of this woods, charged with monitoring the trails, working to eliminate invasive species, and also locating and protecting rare plants.  Since I've been exploring these woods for more than 40 years, I could help these students find and identify what some of those rare species are, and of course, I love nothing better than to prowl this remarkable habitat.   And believe me, my day was made when I came upon a couple of favorite plants I thought I might never find again in these woods.

The first of these plants was the dainty, shade-loving plant called Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), shown here at the center of a wonderful mix of plants that thrive in this habitat.  (I have counted 11 species here in this one square-yard of forest floor! How many do you recognize?)

I used to see this diminutive white-flowered milkweed about every 20 yards or so along the trails, but over the past 5 years they seem to have disappeared from places I found them before.  Perhaps the two Skidmore students brought me great luck, for this day we found many of these pretty plants growing quite close to the trail.  (And when I returned later that day to photograph them, I found another patch of even more along another trail!)

A second plant I had missed seeing for several years is this Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora), and I really did not plan to waste our time trying to find it again.  But as we passed the swampy edge of a woodland pool where it used to grow, I told the students, Hey, let's go look for it!  And so we did.  And there it was! In all its puffy yellow glory!

Neither the milkweed nor the loosestrife are considered rare plants in New York, but they were just dear old friends that I thought I might never again see here.  So I was truly delighted.  I did show the two students some of the really rare plants that grow in this woods (the Green Violet, the Goldenseal, the Ginseng, the Yellow Lady's Slipper), and I swore them to secrecy about their location.  But I also introduced them to many of the common denizens of this woods that were now in bloom, such as this Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) with its fluffy white pink-tinged blossoms.

Here was another flower in bloom.  And yes, it IS a flower, although the students found that a little hard to believe.   This is Squaw Root (Conopholis americana), also called Bear Corn, and I do admit, it doesn't look much like a typical flower.  For one thing, it has no leaves to photosynthesize nutrients for itself, and so it must find its food by parasitizing something else, in its case, the roots of oaks.  We found these right under an oak.

Out in the sun-drenched clearcut under a power line, we came upon a nice big patch of Orange-fruited Horse Gentian, with its tiny red trumpets circling the stem in the leaf axils.  What we also found out there were heavy trucks and power-company work crews clearing a road under this power line.  Oh dear, I thought, will this spell the end of this patch of Horse Gentian?  Again, it is not a rare plant in New York, but  this very clearcut is the only place I personally know of to look for them.  I did suggest to the newly appointed stewards that perhaps their supervisor, the college's Sustainability Coordinator, could urge the work crews to do what they could to spare this patch.  So let's hope they do.  In the meantime, I returned to campus later that day to obtain a specimen of this plant.  According to the state's flora atlas, there's no record of this plant for Saratoga County, so I wanted to preserve some evidence that it was here in Saratoga before it might be gone from where I can find it.

Here's another flower I returned this week to collect a specimen of, only this one was growing along the Hudson River in Warren County.  On Wednesday I went back to the site where I had found this Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia var. primulifolia) last Sunday, this time meeting my friends Evelyn Greene and Bob Duncan, who helped me scour the shoreline to see how many plants we could find.  Well, we found a lot!  How many plants can you count in this one clump?  Enough to spare one, anyway, which now can be vouchered as present in Warren County.  This is a violet species listed as Threatened, even in its typical coastal range.  How strange that we would find it way up here so far from the coast!

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