Friday, September 21, 2018

Sandplain and Creekbank, Fall Flowers and Fungi

Every season has its own wonders, and that's certainly true as summer eases into fall, when Nature saves some of her most spectacular flowers and fascinating fungi for last.  I didn't have to go far afield to find some of these this week, as photos from a quick trip to Woods Hollow Nature Preserve and Gray's Crossing on the Kayaderosseras Creek reveal.  Both sites are within a mile of each other on the northern outskirts of nearby Ballston Spa, but each offers a quite different habitat: sandy and sunny for Woods Hollow, shadier and with richer alluvial soil along the creek.


Fall Flowers at Woods Hollow

I entered the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve through an open meadow adorned with goldenrods and asters, the vividly purple New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) the most outstanding among them.

There's no mistaking the New England Aster, for none of our other fall asters have flowers quite this deeply purple.  This species of aster does come in other colors -- a deep rose and a paler pink -- but all varieties are known for their large showy blooms, as well as the presence of glandular hairs on the flowers' bracts.

It may take a magnifier to clearly espy those glandular hairs on the bracts, but even without one, you can see how they glisten in the sunlight.

Another of our showier autumn asters is the Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), displaying dense clusters of flowers that can range in color from white to tinged with violet.  Those that I found at Woods Hollow did have a slight violet hue.

This Panicled Aster can be distinguished from other tall whitish asters by the way its stalkless, slightly-toothed, lance-shaped leaves meet but do not clasp around the stem.

Just a short distance from the aster-studded meadow lies a dry, sandy area that supports those plants that can tolerate just such an arid habitat as this.  Oaks, pines, and poplars surround this space, while Little Bluestem Grass makes its home in the open areas between the trees.

Fall is the best time of year to find those flowers that prefer dry sand, such as this delicate-looking Sand Jointweed (Polygonella articulata).  It truly abounds at Woods Hollow, but it's quite possible to walk past it without noticing it, for its spindly stems and tiny pale florets can disappear against the sandy background.

But you sure won't walk past Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium) without seeing it!  Especially this time of year, when its yellow-green stems, leaves, and flowers turn a quite startling color of reddish purple.

This bushy vegetable hedgehog -- the whole orb of its floral parts held on a single stalk -- will soon break off and go rolling across the landscape, spilling its seed as it rolls.  Native to the central plains of North America, this plant must have rolled all the way out here to the Northeast, for we are finding it more and more frequently in such barren sandy areas as this.  Here's a closer look at its floral parts, revealing the "wings" that surround the seedpods and doubtless suggested this plant's common name.

I was surprised to find Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) still blooming this late in the day, for it usually drops its florets by early afternoon.  Perhaps as the days grow shorter, its flowers last longer!

But even after its flowers have dropped, Blue Curls is fun to examine.  Look at these  little scoop-shaped bracts, each holding a pair of tiny green seedpods -- like twin babies bundled into their cradles!

Fungi at Woods Hollow

I usually associate fungi with the damp shady woods, usually following rain, but a number of fungus species do prefer just this arid environment, and this is the time of year to see some of the more fascinating species.  The one pictured here below is called the Dyemaker's False Puffball (Pisolithus tinctorius), and the orange-brown powdery stuff on its top indicates it is shedding its spores.

This fungus is known to grow in poor soils under pines and oaks, drawing its nutrients from the roots of those trees.  It can also absorb pollutants such as heavy metals from the soil, making it useful in reclamation and reforestation of polluted and denuded habitats, like those around strip mines.

When this fungus is fresh and before the spores are ripe, it can be used to dye wool a reddish brown color, hence the common name Dyemaker's False Puffball.  Its scientific name, Pisolithus, literally means "pea stone" and refers to the pea-shaped peridioles (the spore-producing parts) seen in the interior of the fungus when it's broken open.  The "tinctorius" part of its name refers to its ability to produce a dye.  I sliced this specimen open to reveal its interior "pea stones" at ascending stages of maturity.

Here's another mushroom that prefers a sandy habitat, that preference reflected in its common name, Sandy Laccaria (Laccaria trullisata).  And it can easily disappear against the sand, due to its dull, sandy-tan coloration.  Dull, that is, until it's cut open, revealing flesh and gills of a startling purple hue.

I was quite surprised to find this Black Tooth fungus (Phellodon niger) here, for I have found it before only in the damp shade of the woods along a creek.  But despite the amount of white adorning its top,  the "black" part of its name was still evident.

Also diagnostic were the teeth that covered the Black Tooth's underside:

Here's a little mushroom I had never seen before.  After pondering my mushroom guides and Google Images, I'm going to venture that this is the fungus called Thelephora terrestris, which is called by a number of different common names, Earth Fan and Fiber Vase among them. According to various sites I visited, this fungus is nearly always found on dry sandy soils, where it forms mycorrhizal associations with conifers.  That's a pretty good description of this habitat, that's for sure.

I'm guessing EVERYbody knows the name of this fungus:  the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea), a common edible mushroom that can be cut into steaks and fried in butter.  But when I first saw it here beneath some pines, I didn't even grasp that it was a mushroom, thinking it was a big white ball some child had left behind.  I left this fungus behind for someone else to collect and enjoy.

I found this lovely creature on the ground, loosely clasping the stem of an oak seedling and flopping weakly.  When I reached my finger beneath it, it seemed unable to fly and just sat there quietly. I guess this is one Monarch Butterfly that will not be heading south on migration.  Perhaps it is one that has already headed south from a much more northern location and has now reached the end of its life after breeding.  One thing about butterflies:  they don't look any less beautiful as they grow old and get ready to die.


Just a short drive from Woods Hollow along Northline Road lies a very different kind of nature preserve called Gray's Crossing, which is actually a non-contiguous part of the Saratoga Spa State Park.  This preserve offers a trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek, a trail that is shaded by giant Silver Maples.  This site's rich alluvial soil is home to some of our most vigorous wildflowers, a few of which grow to gigantic size.  The native sunflower called Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is one of those outsize species, and a large patch of it has just this week come into bloom along the creek.

With the first day of fall arriving this weekend, we now say hello to the last flower of summer, a plant that I could imagine has stored up a whole summer's worth of energy to burst into prodigious bloom as summer wanes. Everything about Jerusalem Artichoke is big and beautiful.

To photograph this flower I had to reach up and bend its stalk down to my eye level.  The stalks pictured below must have been at least 8 feet tall, for they towered well over my head, and I am not a short person.

I next set off down the creekside trail (it's called the Burl Trail) in search of a second species of sunflower, but on the way I had to stop to take in the gorgeousness of the New England Asters that also thrive here.  Although I found a few of the deep-purple variety of this aster, I more often encountered the variety that had blooms of pink or rose.

Did I mention how gorgeous they were?

Gorgeous, too, is a species of sunflower that was introduced to this site just a few years ago, following extensive denuding and restoring of plants along the creekbanks.  This is Maximilian's Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), a marvelously showy sunflower with large blooms all along the tall stalks and not simply clustered at the top.  The species is also distinguished by its narrow lance-shaped leaves that curl scythe-like from the stalks.

Three years ago I was concerned that the Maximilian Sunflowers  -- native to the central states but not to the northeast -- were becoming invasive along this trail, for their numbers had exploded from a single specimen I found one year to overwhelming numbers the next. But then their numbers diminished considerably over the past two years. I found only four plants along the creekside trail this year, and I wondered if this sunflower was well on its way out of here.

Ah, but I shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion!  Yes, there are very few remaining on the trail that closely follows the creek, but how about elsewhere in this preserve?  I glimpsed this scene through the thick vegetation along the creek and wondered:  could those all be Maximilians out there?  I braved the nettles and tearthumb to push through that vegetation, and this is what I saw when I emerged onto a large open meadow.  Maximilian Sunflowers flourishing here as never before!

Is there cause for concern that this species could become invasive here?  Maybe so.  But considering how the population flourished and then declined along the creek, it's probably too soon to predict. And in the meantime, oh gosh, they are beautiful!  And judging by the numbers of Monarchs I saw fluttering among them, other creatures are enjoying them, too!


Jens Zorn said...

A treasure for your viewers . . . May their numbers grow!

Mary Rosenfeld said...

Ah! I think some fungi I found near where I live, at the leafy edge of oaks and maple, is your Pisolithus tinctorius - round with a "bite" out of the top - all were gone past however. So will keep an eye out for some fresh specimens in the same location! thanks for a a most interesting look at this odd mushroom!

Woody Meristem said...

You certainly have a plethora of habitats and species, our flora is much more uniform because our vegetation has been impacted by an overabundance of white-tailed deer for more than 80 years -- in many habitats "If deer eat it, it's gone."