Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sweet Home Saratoga

As I contemplate the tragic, terrible weather in Texas, I count my lucky stars I live in Saratoga County, NY.  Aside from an occasional 30-below day in the dead of winter,we seem to be spared such weather extremes -- floods, droughts, scorching heat, hurricanes, tornadoes -- that afflict other parts of our country and the world.  Our summer this year was rather rainy and cool, but nothing so bad that it ruined anyone's life or livelihood.  And the past week has been nicer than any weather all summer: sunny and pleasant, perfect for outdoor explorations.  I have been out every day, revisiting some of my favorite haunts around the county.  My last blog post described my friend Sue's and my search for that endangered plant at Moreau Lake State Park last Saturday, and here is a digest of some of the other beautiful places I've visited on these lovely late-summer days.

Friday, 8/25, Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa

This wonderful preserve provides us with multiple habitats:  wet meadow, oak/pine grassland, sand plain, pine woods, and a pretty pond with its surrounding wetlands, all within easy walking distance from any of its multiple parking areas.  I chose the Northline Road parking lot this day because it gave me immediate access to the sandy-soiled grasslands, where fields of Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) are turning the ruddy hues they assume this time of the year.  The beauty of this grass is enhanced by the tufts of fluff that ornament its multi-colored stems.

Punctuating those open field of grass are numerous patches of Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata). Although most of its purple-spotted yellow flowers have faded by now, its distinctive pale, pink-tinged bracts are showier than its flowers ever were.

Not very many flowers thrive in bone-dry sand, but Sand Jointweed  (Polygonum articulatum) is one of them.  You have to look very closely, though, to find their tiny white or pinkish flowers on wiry stems as fine as grass.

And here is a mushroom that also thrives in bone-dry sand, the Sandy Laccaria (Laccaria trullisata). From above, it looks the same color as the surrounding sand, but break open a cap and cut into its bulbous sand-coated stalk and find gills and flesh of a lovely purple color.

Not far from all this dry sand lies a green and lovely pond, surrounded by pines and lined by banks that are lush with shrubs and ferns and mosses.

Sprouting out of a surprising patch of Sphagnum moss along the pond's banks are numerous stems of Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), a plant so tiny it's very easily overlooked.  Both the Sphagnum and the Bartonia are usually associated with acidic peatlands, so I was amazed when I discovered both of them here on the shore of this pond a couple of years ago.  I was pleased to find them still thriving here.

Sunday, 8/27, Spring Run Trail, Saratoga Springs

This popular in-town trail runs about a mile along an old railway right-of-way, and it's rare to find a long stretch like that pictured above without runners, bikers, dog-walkers and baby-stroller-pushers in view.  I didn't walk the entire length of the trail today because I had a particular destination in mind, a patch of Great Lobelias (Lobelia siphilitica) that I knew to grow just beyond this bridge that crosses a trailside creek.

And there they were!  This is such a gorgeous plant, it's hard to believe it's a native wildflower. And it's also amazing to see it thrive in such an invasives-infested site as this former railroad bed. But the Joe Pye-weed, Boneset, and Spotted Jewelweed that share this plot are all sturdy natives that help to keep the Purple Loosestrife and Japanese Knotweed at bay.

What a spectacularly beautiful flower!

Monday, 8/28, Hudson River at Moreau

Monday was just a gorgeous day to be on the river, the weekend's boat traffic gone, the blue sky ornamented with cottony clouds, and barely a breeze to ruffle the silvery surface of the water.  And to top it off,  this is the time of the year when Mother Nature adorns the banks with the most spectacular wildflower of all, the almost impossibly vibrant Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Almost as lovely were the Tall Coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) surmounting the shrubs along the shore, surrounded by Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) with its pretty blue berries.

The bright-yellow flower called Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) seems to vie with those other riverside blooms as to which is the showiest one of them all.  I'd say they were pretty evenly matched! (That bright-red leaf floating beneath the Sneezeweed dropped from an overhanging Black Tupelo tree [Nyssa sylvatica], a tree that turns a brilliant scarlet long before its neighboring hardwoods begin to turn their autumn colors.)

A bit more subtle in its coloration, the elegant Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) still holds its own when it comes to floral beauty.  And this year these flowers were truly abounding along the banks.  I can't remember any other year when I've seen so many of these pink-tinged white blooms standing out against the dark foliage of the river banks.

Tuesday, 8/29, Back Bay of Moreau Lake

Tuesday was not a sunny day, but it didn't rain, either, and that pearl-gray sky cast an even, shadowless light across the masses of Boneset and Goldenrods that lined the back bay of Moreau Lake.  Tucked in among those taller plants were uncountable numbers of the little Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula) with its vividly pink, nearly stalkless blooms.

I mention the flower stalks of the Small-flowered Gerardia, since the length of these stalks is just about the only way for the casual observer to distinguish the Small-flowered from the Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia), which also grows along the shores of Moreau Lake, but bearing its almost identical flowers on much longer stalks.  The two species often grow side by side, yet never seem to hybridize.

I was delighted to see both Gerardias, of course, but the flowers I was really determined to find were the Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) I once had found blooming on the far shore of this back bay.  Like most other orchids, Spiranthes cernua can be quite fickle, blooming profusely one year and not at all the next.  I had set my course for about three-quarters of the way around the bay, but I'd hardly gone a quarter that distance when, there on the sand, almost 40 stems of these little white orchids astounded me by their abundant presence.  Every year, I walk this shore several times in late August, and never once had I seen Nodding Ladies' Tresses at this spot on the shore.  As I said:  orchids are fickle.  They either delight or disappoint.  This was a delightful find!

Here was another delight:  the lovely little moth called Pale Beauty (Campaea perlata), clinging to a stem of Toothed Flat Sedge.  I would say that was a perfect common name for this beautiful pale moth.

And here is a very aptly named shrub (at least by its common name): the Round-leaved Dogwood (Cornus rugosa), which was growing right by the fishing bridge that divides the main lake from the back bay.  This shrub certainly has very round leaves, compared to other dogwoods.  But what we notice most about it this time of year, long after its fruits have fallen or been devoured, are its vividly pink clusters of pedicels topped by equally vibrant little orbs.  Pretty!

Wednesday, 8/30, Hudson River at South Glens Falls

Just above the dam at Glens Falls lies a section of the Hudson River that is marked by a series of bays.  These bays were carved out of the riverbanks during the era when loggers floated timber down the Hudson from the Adirondack forests, the bays to serve as sorting ponds for each lumber company's logs.  They don't float logs down from the mountains anymore, but the sorting ponds remain:  quiet and shallow, home to emergent and floating plants, and a refuge for basking turtles and stalking herons.

Some of these floating and emergent plants are among the rarer species in the state, including the bright-yellow flowers poking up from the water in the photo below.  These are Beck's Water Marigold (Bidens beckii), considered a Threatened species in New York, but obviously not threatened at all in these waters.  This is truly a banner year for this plant.  In the same water I used to see maybe three or four plants, I'm seeing hundreds this summer.

These pools are also where I know I can come to find a second Threatened species, the Small Floating Bladderwort (Utricularia radiata).  And sure enough, here they were!  Not so many as I've seen in past years, but enough to know that their population here remains secure.  They freely float on the river's currents, so vast numbers of them could be hiding out in some pocket backwater anywhere along the banks.

I came here specifically on this date because I was pretty sure I would find the beautiful Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) growing directly out of some steep shale cliffs that rise from the river a ten-minute paddle upstream.   And I wasn't disappointed!

I find it hard to obtain an optimally exposed photo of Grass of Parnassus, especially when its brilliant-white flowers are backed by coal-black shale.  I could take multiple exposures and layer them, I suppose, but that would require mounting a tripod and capturing identical images at different exposures.  Not so easy to do from a canoe that the river current keeps pushing downstream!

At least this photo seems clear enough to reveal the interesting structure of the blooms and the pale-green lines that ornament each petal. (Are they petals or sepals?) That ring of yellow dots surrounding the pistil I assume are the flower's nectaries.  Can anyone tell me if that is correct?

These same shale cliffs are also home to these pretty blue flowers called Kalm's Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii), named after Pehr Kalm, the protege of the famed 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. I have read that Kalm traveled to the Lake George area as he botanized the eastern region of North America when it was still very wild and he had reason to fear both rattlesnakes and angry natives.  Perhaps Kalm paddled these very waters and passed these same shale cliffs and saw these same beautiful blue flowers blooming right out of the rock, and he was struck by their beauty then, just as I am today.

I was also struck by the royal-blue beauty of the Closed Gentians (Gentiana clausa) blooming along the banks.  How lucky I was that a ray of sunlight lit up the blooms and enhanced their color just as I came along to take their photo!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Another Rare Flower Found at Moreau Lake State Park

We don't usually think of Avens flowers (Geum species) as worthy of much attention.  Sure, they're all native wildflowers, but most are kind of weedy looking, and they sprout up uninvited, often, in places we don't want them.  I was kind of surprised to discover that a couple of them -- Yellow Avens (G. aleppicum) and Large-leaved Avens (G. macrophyllum var. macrophyllum) -- were on a list of plants that had not been documented to exist in Saratoga County, so I set out to find them this summer.  And I did.  The Yellow Avens grew at the edge of a drive-in's parking lot, and the Large-leaved Avens grew along a trail in Moreau Lake State Park.  I collected the specimens and pressed and dried them and sent them off to Steve Young, chief botanist with the New York Flora Association. Steve would do what needed to be done to document these plants as present in the county. 

I was gone for the past week attending a family funeral in Michigan, and just got home today.  When I checked my email I noticed a message from Steve.  Could I find any more of the Large-leaved Avens, he asked.  And he then informed me that this is an Endangered species in New York State.  That's the rarest category, meaning the plant has been found in no more than five locations across the state.  Wow!  Who knew? I thought Large-leaved Avens was just another weedy plant with a rather undistinguished flower.  Here's what it looks like:

The Large-leaved Avens flowers don't look much different from those of Yellow Avens, which, although it has yet to be documented for Saratoga County, is nevertheless quite common across the state (ranked as Demonstrably Secure).  But it's true that the Yellow Avens does have much narrower leaves than those of Large-leaved Avens.  Here's what Yellow Avens looks like:

It is definitely the size and shape of the leaves that distinguish G. macrophyllum var. macrophyllum, a very aptly-named plant (macrophyllum means large-leaved).  This is a photo I took of another patch of Large-leaved Avens I know about in Essex County, taken in late May before the flowers opened but the basal leaves were well developed.  That distinctive broad orbic or kidney-shape of the terminal leaflet of those compound basal leaves is the clincher for this species, and obvious even at this early stage of emergence.

It's that distinctive leaf shape that will help me find additional specimens of Large-leaved Avens, if there are any,  when I go looking for them this weekend along that trail in Moreau Lake State Park.  The flowers will probably be spent, having doubtless produced by now the burry seed-head all Avens species produce.  This next photo shows the typical Avens seed head, this one from the Yellow Avens:

So wish me luck.  The last time I found an Endangered species of wildflower at Moreau Lake State Park (that one was Whorled Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum), it turned out to be the largest and healthiest population in the state.  Let's hope that might also be the case for Geum macrophyllum var. macrophyllum, the aptly-named Large-leaved Avens.

UPDATE:  My eagle-eyed pal Sue Pierce and I returned to where I first found this G. macrophyllum and by diligent searching found 13 more plants, in addition to the one I first found (which continues to thrive).  This particular species of Avens appears to prefer an edge habitat, one that is neither in deep shade nor full sun.  Of the 14 plants, 5 were mature plants with flowering stems (now gone to seed), while 9 of them possessed basal leaves only.  There was no mistaking those big round basal leaves!  So at least we know we have a population of this Endangered plant, and not just a single anomaly.  Here's what the mature plant looks like now, with those distinctive burry seed heads:

Saturday, August 19, 2017

This Summer's Surprising Abundance

Beck's Water Marigold (Bidens beckii) is classified as a rare plant in New York, as well as in many surrounding states, and I have been lucky enough to know where to find some for quite a few years. But never have I seen these emergent flowers thriving in such abundance as they are thriving this summer. There's a Hudson River backwater near Glens Falls, NY, where I used to find maybe 3 or 4 plants holding their bright-yellow blooms and green stem leaves above the still water, but this summer one whole end of the pool is just chock full of them. 


Those big yellow aster-like flowers and sharply-toothed green leaves are the first things we see when we paddle the quiet waters where this plant grows, but the bulk of this flower's leaves grow beneath the surface, in hair-fine whorls that circle the underwater stems.

I'm not sure why we are seeing the Beck's Water Marigold in such abundance this summer.  Perhaps it's because our summer has been rainier and cooler than those in the recent past.  Whatever the reason, I wonder if those same conditions could also account for the amazing abundance of Primrose Moths (Schinia florida) I found this past week.  I have been looking for this pretty pink-and-yellow moth for years, searching almost every stand of Evening Primrose (the moth's only food source) I came across, but to no avail.  But this year, I have been finding them almost every time I look for them.  In addition to the one whose photo I posted on my last blog entry, here are a few more of the Primrose Moths I found the past few days.

The moths always seem to occupy the bright-yellow flowers face down.   I wonder, are they still feeding on the Evening Primrose nectar, or are they finally sleeping after a night of seeking food?

Here were a couple of them, sharing the same flower.

They do seem to be pretty groggy, quite unwilling to be dislodged when I nudge them to try to see their faces.  Even this bumblebee buzzing around the moth's flower did not seem to disturb it one bit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Magnificent Mounds of Marvelous Weeds

I belong to two Facebook groups that deal with plants, and boy, does it get my goat when I hear some folks dismiss a perfectly fascinating plant as "just a weed."  Wow, what a failure of imagination! Or knowledge.  All weeds have a story, and most of them have at least a few good points once you get to know them.  Well, let the weed-haters have their tidy gardens of boring horticultural specimens surrounded by deserts of mulch, give me a "waste place" just packed with botanical volunteers.  That's the kind of place I went to today, and oh, did it yield great treasures!  This was the Town of Moreau sandpit at the end of Potter Road, a place just piled with mounds of disturbed soil, every inch of it crowded with wonderful weeds.

Each of the mounds seemed to be home to select groups of weeds, like the one pictured above that was solidly packed with Lamb's Quarter and Ragweed and almost nothing else, or the one pictured below that appeared to host only some kind of giant grass and a few plants of Velvet Leaf with its enormous leaves.  I'm supposing that each heap's denizens depended upon where its dirt came from, and what seeds resided in the soil before it was quarried and carted here.

I know that Velvet Leaf is despised by farmers for the way it invades their fields, but I'm not a farmer so I'm free to adore its sweet yellow flowers, and even more, its funny seed pods with crimped tops that suggest one of its other common names of Pie Plant.

While up on that mound lifting those giant velvety leaves to find the flowers, I discovered that there WERE other plants that were sharing this pile of dirt. One of those plants was Heart-leaved Umbrellawort.  Even though the Umbrellawort had already shed its purple blooms, the flaring  butter-colored bracts surrounding the seed pods had a delicate beauty all their own.

And oh look!  Down at the base of that mound were a few stems of False Pimpernel, with its wee little blue flowers.  I usually find this plant on mud flats along the banks of rivers or creeks.  I wonder how it got here to this place so high and dry?

Moving along, I came to these mounds that were heaped with some flowering vine that was tough enough to bully a shrub of Japanese Knotweed into submission, and also ascend some surrounding trees, as well.

How pleased I was to discover this bully was one of our native plants and not some other alien invasive.  This was One-seeded Bur Cucumber, and it was covered with flowers and newly formed fruit.

One-seeded Bur Cucumber bears both male and female flowers on the same vine.  In this photo, the larger male (staminate) flower is on the right, and the smaller female (pistillate) flowers form the globular cluster seen on the left.

It's that cluster of female flowers that will form the bristly fruit that does indeed look like a bur.

Not too far away, on the next mound I came to, I found another plant with spiny fruit, and that was Jimson Weed, another big burly plant.  Oh lucky day, I said to myself, for here was one of the species I'd been looking for all summer, one of the plants that are missing from the Saratoga County plant atlas.  So I collected a branch of it that contained both a flower and a fruit, noting a smell like peanuts that emanated from the plant.  Best not to be tempted by that scent to taste this plant, though, since I understand it can be deadly poisonous.  Although it has a long history of medicinal and hallucinogenic use, the slightest dosage above the therapeutic amount can cause serious illness or death.

Okay, while we're on the subject of burly plants, here's one of our burliest.  Pokeweed.  It was sharing that mound with the Jimson Weed, and like that plant, it, too, is too toxic for humans to consume, although birds can eat the berries with impunity.  And they do.  This particular specimen was kind of puny as Pokeweed goes. It can be enormous.

As I walked out into a more open meadow, I saw this mound that was studded with colorful garden plants, notably Giant Sunflowers and Cleome.  I wonder if this dirt was dug from a place where a home and garden once stood.

Nearby was a smaller mound that supported even more of that colorful Cleome.

It's pretty unusual to find these gorgeous big pink and white blooms in the wild.

But here, too, I did find a wildflower just as colorful: Sweet William Catchfly was hiding among the grasses down at the base of that mound that bore the Cleome.

And just a few feet away was this brilliant-red flower that vaguely resembled a Petunia.  But it was smaller than a Petunia, nor was it fragrant like that garden flower, and its leaves were not at all sticky. I was completely stumped.  Definitely not in my Newcomb's.  But thanks to those Facebook friends who love their tidy gardens full of horticultural species, I was able to get an ID on this flower as soon as I posted its photo on our shared site.  This is a cultivated garden species called Calibrachoa, a relative of Petunias that is native to South America.  It is also a distant cousin of tomatoes, being in the Nightshade Family.

I next left the dirt heaps behind as I walked into an open meadow.  Here was that marvelous mix of plants that inhabit most open areas this time of year.  The Black-eyed Susans stood out from the rest, but they left lots of room for the Queen Anne's Lace, Red and White Clover, Spotted Knapweed, Daisy Fleabane, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Horseweed, Bedstraw, and other plants too numerous to mention.

In sandier areas of poorer soil, the thready-leaved plants of Slender Gerardia here and there bore a single bloom or two.

White spikes of Wild Cucumber flowers rose from the vines that clambered over a stand of Goldenrod.

In shaded areas closer to the surrounding woods, the starry flowers of Virgin's Bower spangled the dark green leaves.

Near a tiny creek that ran parallel to the gravel road, masses of Spotted Jewelweed dangled their pretty orange blooms.

Sharing the shady streambank with the Jewelweed, a number of Horsebalm plants sprouted these fountains of odd-shaped yellow flowers.  If you stroke these flowers, a scent like that of citronella fills the air. I wonder if it has the same repellant quality that citronella has, and if ever it was used to repel biting flies from horses, and hence this common name.

Speaking of how a plant might have acquired its common name, I wonder how this tiny woodland flower came to be called Enchanter's Nightshade?  When I have more time, I will google this, and hopefully, return with a tale to tell.  I was frankly surprised to see so many fresh white flowers  today, since this species has been blooming for many weeks.

Here it is at last!  I'd been searching for Hemp Nettle all summer, scouring areas where I'd found it before to no avail.  Such a common Mint-family weed, and it had eluded me entirely, until today.  This is one more of those species missing from our county's plant atlas, despite the fact that it's not the least bit rare. Except when I want to find it!  But here it was, in abundant numbers, a virtual hedge of Hemp Nettle lining the shady side of the road.

Here's a close view of Hemp Nettle's tiny florets.  Many Mint-family plants have flowers that resemble each other, but these baby-fine hairs sticking up from the flower's top petal are diagnostic.  As is the particular diamond-shaped pattern that decorates the lower lip.  The plant is not related to nettles, despite the name, but it does have spiny bracts and stiff hairs on the stem that prickle a bit when you pick it.

As I left the shade of the woods and walked toward the gravel road, the sunlight picked out a cluster of sunny-yellow flowers with fern-like leaves that grew by the side of the road.  Gosh, I thought, those kind of look like miniature Wild Senna plants.  But Wild Senna is a taller shrub, and these were low to the ground.  A closer look revealed the red-centered flowers of Partridge Pea, a plant I've only encountered once before in all my wildflower wanderings.  I couldn't remember if this was on the "Missing" list for Saratoga County, but I collected a specimen just in case.  And sure enough, when I checked the plant atlas at home, this plant WAS among the unvouchered.  Here's hoping that it will be, in the future.

I was planning to ignore this last flower.  I saw it off in a roadside ditch as I headed for my car,  but since I see Evening Primrose blooming in lots of other places,  I didn't even slow my steps to take a second look at it.  But something must have signaled to me to turn around and look again.  Hey wait, what's that pink thing on the yellow flower?  A fallen leaf?  A faded bloom?  Or could it be that beautiful moth I've longed to see for years?

It WAS that moth!  That pretty pink and yellow moth that nightly feeds exclusively on night-blooming Evening Primrose, and usually spends the day hiding in the closed-up blooms.  It's called the Primrose Moth (Schinia florida). Like those common weeds that eluded me until today, this moth had also eluded me, despite quite diligent searching.  Well, I guess that this was my lucky day!

P.S.:  Forgive me for neglecting to use scientific names for all these lovely weeds.  There were just so MANY of them, and I didn't want to take the time to look up their proper names.  It's possible I'll come back to add them later.  Or maybe, if you have to know them, you'll look them up yourself.