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.


threecollie said...

You would love our yard. lol. I was surprised to discover this summer that the blooms of wild cucumber smell wonderful. Good thing, as it clambers over everything, even to the top of the winesap apple tree...

The Furry Gnome said...

What a wonderful collection of interesting 'weeds'! I think I'm going to miss our meadow here at home as much as anything when we move. Such a variety of flowers.

Woody Meristem said...

Weeds are only "weeds" when plants grow in places humans don't want them. Otherwise those are some of the most successful survivors of all plants. And they're pretty too!