Thursday, June 14, 2018

Flowers and Pods of the Mid-June Woods

Mid-June is not really the time to go looking for flowers in the middle of the woods.  The tree canopy has fully closed over by now, the spring ephemerals have disappeared, and the late forest-bloomers have yet to produce their flowers.  But I did manage to entice my friends in the Thursday Naturalists to tour the Skidmore woods with me today, offering the promise of finding some unusual flowers in bloom.

The most beautiful of these forest bloomers is the diminutive Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), with its dangling clusters of fragrant white flowers.  Some years, this plant is abundant in the limestone-enriched Skidmore woods, while other years it is difficult to find.  This is a scarce year, but we did manage to find a few, although we had to take a detour off the main trail to find them.

Another shade-bloomer, but one that likes a wet habitat, is the Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora).  We found quite a few plants growing in the wet mud at the edge of a woodland pond.

Near the same pond we found several clusters of Squaw Root (Conopholis americana) blooming beneath the towering trunk of a Red Oak.  Without any green parts for photosynthesis, these flowering plants were obtaining their nutrients by being parasitic on the roots of that oak.

When I previewed this walk earlier in the week, I found a very few tiny red flowers still blooming on the sturdy plants of Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum), but by today all the flowers had fallen off, leaving only a wreath of purple bracts surrounding the stems in the leaf axils. Later in the summer, small orange fruits will grow from those bracts.

The flowers had also fallen off the White Baneberry plants we found, leaving the developing "doll's-eye" berries growing from stout pedicels.

One of the rarest plants growing in the lime-rich soil of the Skidmore woods is a plant called Green Violet (Hybanthus concolor).  Although this plant is reported from no other location in Saratoga County, it thrives here by the hundreds.  Its flowers, little green nubbins that grow in the leaf axils, look nothing like the flowers we usually call violets, but its seed pods do resemble those of others in the Violet Family.  We found few flowers on the Green Violets today, but we did find lots of seed pods.

This is the typical form of a seed pod for plants in the Violet Family: a three-parted pod filled with little orb-shaped seeds.

We also found lots of seed pods produced by the many Bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) that line the trail through the woods.

Some of those pods were bulging with ripe seeds. I opened one pod to demonstrate how each seed possesses a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome. These elaiosomes are rich in both fats and proteins, making them a favorite food of ants,  who carry the ripe seeds to their nests, where they consume the elaiosomes and discard the rest of the seeds in their waste pits, all prepared for sprouting new plants.  Many of our other forest flowers produce similar seeds that are also distributed by ants.

Two different species of Bellworts grow close to each other in the Skidmore woods, and it was interesting to compare the leaves and seedpods of the two, both of which have leaves that appear to be perforated by the stem. This photo shows the Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), with leaves that are longer than wide. A plump three-parted seed pod rests on a leaf.

This photo below shows the Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), which also bears a three-parted seed pod, but its leaves are much rounder and shorter than those of the Large-flowered species.  Also, their leaves tend to curl up at the edges, creating almost a cup shape to the leaves.

Here is another of the plants that thrive in the Skidmore woods but which have been reported from nowhere else in the county:  a beautiful patch of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) sharing a rocky area with other lime-loving plants like Bulblet Fern and Wild Ginger.  An early bloomer, its flowers have long-ago faded, but some of the plants display the green fruits that will later turn bright red.  Luckily, this patch is hidden well off the trail in this more-than-200-acre woods, so poachers are not likely to locate it.  I know where this threatened species grows, but even I have to search and search to find it again.

 Finally, here was a puzzle.  We were passing this small oak sapling and noted its distinctive shallowly orbed leaves.  Was this a Chestnut Oak, we pondered, since the terrain seemed too dry to support Swamp White Oak, a species with similar leaves?  Luckily, we had Ed Miller among our members today, for he is an expert in woody plants, and he was able to suggest a possibility for us.  It was neither the Chestnut nor the Swamp White, he posited, but it could be  the Yellow Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), sometimes call the Chinkapin Oak.

Ed told us he had seen this oak before, in just such a lime-enriched rocky habitat, and he showed us what could be the clinching detail by handing us a leaf to examine closely with our magnifiers.  Note the tiny nipple at the point of each lobe, he said.  And sure enough, there it was.  I regret that my photo is not quite in focus, but I think you can see the nipples.  Now I need to return and collect a specimen of these leaves to determine whether it really is a Yellow Oak and not the similar Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides).  If it turns out to be Yellow Oak, I will submit a specimen to the New York Flora Association, in order to document this tree's presence in Saratoga County, since to date it has not been reported here.  And I'll also try to take a better photo.


Woody Meristem said...

Good find on the oak no matter which species it is; I didn't realize either grew that far north.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Woody, I think we have another 50 miles or so to go before the oaks peter out. Few of any species grow in the Adirondacks.