Saturday, March 30, 2019

Surprise Finds at Orra Phelps Preserve

Really warm today! My porch thermometer read 70 degrees by late afternoon.  Driving around the countryside, I could see that the snow was ALL gone from the roadsides and open fields and even from many wooded areas.  So what is it with the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve? Does some kind of mini-boreal climate persist there? I went there today on the chance that Snow Trillium might be blooming already, but the trails were still slippery with hard-packed ice and the woods still lay deep in snow.

Determined to check on those wee little trilliums, I slipped and slid on the icy trails or slogged through shin-deep snow until I reached the ridge where I know the plants to grow.  Even though their particular site was snow free, I found not a sign of the trilliums as yet.  Some years they surprise me, bursting into bloom well before the snow has melted in the hollows and nighttime temps still fall well below freezing. But not quite yet, this year.

Reluctant to retrace my steps on the steep and icy trails, I headed instead directly through the woods to Parkhurst Road and walked the roadside back toward the parking area.  Glancing into the woods, I was startled to see this extensive patch of yellow blooms spreading across the forest floor.

My first response on seeing these flowers was Oh no! Could this be a patch of that horribly invasive Lesser Celandine?  But a closer look revealed that these bright-yellow blooms belonged to the very- early-blooming garden flower called Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).  This Buttercup-family plant is not a native wildflower, but it's not considered to be invasive, either, as far as I know, even though it is known to naturalize in wooded areas.  Such a pretty patch of posies!  This must have been somebody's garden, long ago.

And here was further proof of a former garden persisting in the woods, a large patch of another early- blooming garden flower called Snow Drops (Galanthus nivales) nodding its pretty white blooms adjacent to the patch of Winter Aconite.

Ah yes! I also found the remains of a low stone wall and a few moss-covered steps, further signs that humans had once cultivated a garden here.  The woods and the roadside shrubbery had grown up to nearly hide it, but those masses of bright-yellow blooms sure gave its secret away! A nice surprise on an otherwise disappointing day.

Monday, March 25, 2019

One More Flower!

 Oh happy day!  I found a woodland trail completely free of snow and ice today!  Well, parts of it were anyway, whole sections of the trail that circles Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, the parts that get the full force of the afternoon sun.  What a treat it was, to feel softening earth cushion my steps as I strode along, kicking through crispy dry leaves that crackled beneath my feet for the first time this spring.

It felt so balmy today, I let myself enjoy the illusion that all the green things sprouting up from the forest floor were more signs of spring, even though I knew that plants like this Fan Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum) were really evergreen plants that had wintered over under the snow.

Pincushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum) also looked remarkably fresh and green, having only just emerged from under its winter blanket.

Large patches of Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) did look a bit winter-weary, having been pressed flat by the weight of snow until just this week.  But the leaves were as green as ever.  I could imagine them greedily photosynthesizing, stoking up on the strengthening sunlight as this lovely groundcover prepares for a new season of growth and flowering.

And then I found THIS!  This wee little wispy bunch of lipstick-red pistils sprouting out from a cone-like bud is the female flower of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), among the earliest of our flowers to bloom in spring. First comes Skunk Cabbage, then Coltsfoot, and now, at last, American Hazelnut.  The floral floodgates have opened!

When I first passed this patch of Hazelnut shrubs an hour before, my diligent searching had found not a single flower.  Was it the one more hour of sunlight's warmth that had teased them into sprouting?  Or had the changed angle of sunlight caused these vivid little blooms to glow like rubies and thus catch my eye?  Whatever the reason, I now found many little sprouts among the twigs.  Even a few that were doubles!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Coltsfoot in Bloom!

Such a beautiful, balmy, blue-sky day today! So apt for the first day of spring!  After slipping and sliding on the packed-ice trails at Bog Meadow earlier in the day, I longed to stride freely on bare ground beneath my feet, so I stopped off at the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga Springs on my way home.  I accessed Spring Run Trail from the parking lot of a retail/residential complex on Excelsior Avenue, where a set of cleared stairs led down to the plowed public trail.

I headed east toward a bridge that crosses the now-rushing Spring Run Brook, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my back and the radiance of a clear blue sky over my head. I was delighted to note that the snow near the bridge had retreated well away from the trailside.  I knew this particular spot to be the site where the wildflower Coltsfoot first comes into bloom each spring.  Would I find it there today?

Oh yes, I DID!!!

OK, OK, I know that Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is just some little no 'count weed, not even a native wildflower but rather one that was brought to this continent by early European settlers as a medicinal plant.  But even though I'm a total native-plant snob, I can't help adoring Coltsfoot's sunny yellow blooms, our first flower of spring that actually LOOKS like a flower, the kind of flower our children drew with a yellow crayon and held beneath their chins to prove they liked butter.  And for me as a Christian, I love it as a symbol of Easter.  This common little roadside weed speaks more to me of the Resurrection than any pampered hothouse Easter Lily ever could.  Like God's love, these cheerful little blooms are freely given, springing forth unbidden from the cold dead leaf litter, there's not a thing we had to do to deserve them, nor a penny we have to spend to enjoy them.  Also, like the Incarnate One who dwelt among the lowly and despised, Coltsfoot makes its home among the poorest soils, brightening desolate areas where little else will grow. And also, as Jesus did, it has healing powers  (it's said to be a remedy for sore throats and coughs).  So I bless you, dear little Coltsfoot.  It gives me great joy to welcome you once more.

First Day, First Flower of Spring!

 Despite a warm sun and blue sky, it sure didn't look very spring-like along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail today, with hard-packed icy snow still deep on the trail.

But close by that trail runs a little brook where water was running freely, whispering its quiet spring song.

And there, protruding above the rippling water, were the swelling, brightly colored bulbous forms of Skunk Cabbage, our very first flower of spring.  But were the spadices really in bloom, deep inside those opening spathes?

Oh, yes they were! Not quite spilling pollen as yet, but this spadix was covered with opening florets.  No turning back, now!  Spring is here at last!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Still Cold

 OK, we had one warm day.  And Spring is officially due to arrive tomorrow.  But Winter is saying "Not so fast," and keeping us in its grip still, with temps down into the teens at night and warming only a bit above freezing during the day.  As a result, the packed-down trail around Mud Pond was still covered with slippery hard ice, so I had to don my ice-grippers when I walked there yesterday.

But I did see the ice at the edge of the pond was retreating a bit.  I had chosen to walk on the pond's frozen surface to avoid deep snow in the woods, and now I was searching for where I could climb back onto land without plunging up to my hips in icy water.

Eventually, I managed to climb safely back onto the bank and up a hill to a big patch of American Hazelnut shrubs (Corylus americana). Ooh, those catkins were definitely longer than I had seen them a few weeks before!  Were they shedding pollen now?  Would I find any tiny red sprouts of the female flowers studding the branches?

No.  No pollen wafted as yet from the still-closed catkins, and no tiny red female flowers appeared among the branches. But I did find this fascinating stuff called Glue Crust Fungus (Hymenochaete corrugata) coating some of the hazelnut twigs.  See how this fungus appears to glue some twigs together?  That is the fungus's strategy to hoard dead hazelnut twigs for itself, gluing the dead twigs to some living ones high in the shrub so they wouldn't fall to the ground, where other, rival fungi could compete to consume them.  Sometimes, Nature absolutely astounds me!  Who knew that a fungus could strategize like this?

Friday, March 15, 2019


 Would you look at THAT?!  Seventy degrees today! And finally, after 9 days of heavy-duty antibiotics to treat an intestinal infection, I felt well enough to venture out for a walk today. Well enough, anyway, for an easy walk on a cleared pathway like that of the Spring Run Trail right here in Saratoga Springs.  So that's where I headed, wearing only a sweater and rejoicing under a clear blue sky.

My hope was to maybe find our first flower of spring blooming along this little woodland brook.  But the depth of the snow remaining on the banks soon tempered my hopes that I might find Skunk Cabbage in bloom. Yes, I know that Skunk Cabbage can create enough heat to melt the snow around it, but not when that snow is still a foot or more deep!

I did find a Skunk Cabbage spathe or two protruding from shallow water at the edge of the brook, but they hardly seemed any more advanced toward blooming than they had appeared last fall.  But it won't be long. The spathes did seem to be coloring up a bit.

Meanwhile, today's warmth and bright sun were melting the snow at a rapid rate, so the larger stream that runs along Spring Run Trail was rushing with great vigor.

And the willows leaning over the stream did appear to be a bit yellower than when I last walked this way.

And here at last was a definite sign of spring:  the male Redwing Blackbirds were back in the marsh!  I could hear them, first, their buzzing calls, and after standing quietly for many minutes, I finally spied one flitting about the Phragmites stalks, possibly selecting a nesting site to defend until his mate arrives when the spring advances.

Friday, March 8, 2019

To My Grandma, With Love and Awe

On International Women's Day, I could think of many brave and renowned women whose lives have inspired me, women like Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Teresa of Avila. But the woman who shaped my values and joy more than any other was my paternal grandmother, Lillian Shafer Dudd. Musically gifted, compassionate toward all, and possessing an awe-inspiring intellect, she could also shoot a thieving red squirrel out of a bird's nest with her 22, or nurse a Jersey cow through a life-threatening siege of green-feed bloat, or make the best strawberry shortcake in the whole wide world from berries she grew herself. But most of all, she loved me with all her heart. She made me feel important, worthy, beloved. She was my safe and happy place when other parts of my life were sad or scary. I somehow believe that if everyone could have a grandma like mine, the wounds of the world might be healed.

This is the same tribute I posted a year ago on International Women's Day.  But the sentiment remains as true for me today as ever, and so I am happy to post it again.  Most of all, I wanted to look once more at her dear face, remembering the loving gaze she always turned on me.  Today, while reading all the tributes to women of power, influence, and accomplishment who have made their marks on the larger world, I thought it important to also honor the mothers and grandmas whose many acts of loving kindness may never be known to that larger world, but whose impact has been immeasurable.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Farewell, My Dear Friend

Ed Miller, seated among the collection of native woody plants he almost single-handedly
established at the renowned Landis Arboretum near Esperance, NY.
Yes, I know.  Nobody lives forever.  But damn, I'd hoped we'd have a few more adventures together, Ed Miller and I. Only a few short weeks ago, Ed was as alert and as agile as ever -- amazingly agile and alert for one who was 94 years old.  But sad to say, Ed suffered a stroke a few weeks ago, and little by little he weakened until he no longer had the strength to draw breath, and so he died.  Yesterday evening.  March 4, 2019.  Although I am sad to have lost my friend, I am happy to report that he spent his last days at peace and without pain, accepting of his situation, and surrounded by those he loved.

I have written before on this blog about Ed and what he meant to me, and I urge my readers to re-visit the tribute I composed about him on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  Or type his name into this blog's search bar and be prepared to be amazed at how many adventures we shared together and how many things Ed taught me.  Ed was the most enthusiastic teacher of all things botanical I have ever known, responding with irrepressible delight to even the commonest wildflower, excited to share with others everything that he knew, and eager to learn from others -- even others like myself, a neophyte nature enthusiast with far less knowledge and experience than he had.  That's just the way he was: insatiably curious, open, enthusiastic, generous, smart, and fun.

We had SO much fun together!   Thank you for taking me under your wing, dear Ed.  In addition to all your accomplishments, you added much joy to the world.  Farewell, my friend.  I will remember you with delight all the rest of my days.

I hope this photo conveys the delight I always felt in Ed's company. (Photo by Sue Pierce)

Saturday, March 2, 2019

It's March!

Hurrah!  It's March!  Winter will soon be over!  But don't be fooled by this robin feeding in a sumac thicket.  We have robins all winter now, as long as they can find sumac and crabapples and other fruiting shrubs and vines to feed in.  But the sight of this robin  yesterday along the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga Springs gave me a little jolt of joy, nevertheless.  Especially since the snow still lay deep in the woods where I made my way down to the trail from a parking area near a residential development at the end of Excelsior Avenue.

Thankfully, though, the Spring Run Trail is plowed all winter, and so is this beautiful boardwalk that crosses the marsh at this end of the trail.  When your legs grow weary of snowshoes or microspikes, this trail makes a great place to stride out on an easy walk.

This paved and plowed trail runs about a mile from East Avenue to where it ends near the Northway (Interstate 87), and much of it passes through woods and wetlands, as well as some residential neighborhoods.

A rushing creek runs most of the way along the trail, and the sound of its splashing water sure sounded like spring to my ears, especially with a warm sun beating down on the softening snow.

For a moment I thought there were tiny insects flying about, adding to the illusion of spring, but when I reached out to capture one of them on my glove, turns out it was only cattail fluff wafting on the air from a trailside marsh.

There's been news of Red-winged Blackbird sightings in the area already, but the only sign of them I saw on this day was one of their leftover nests hidden within the swampside shrubbery.  Filled with snow, not eggs!

I do yearn to see flashes of color to liven up the dull wintry landscape, so I was delighted to see these garnet-red Highbush Cranberry clusters glowing in the sun.  After the winter's freezes, the normally bitter berries should have become more palatable by now, offering sustenance to migratory birds who return here when little other food remains.

The branches of Red Osier Dogwood add their own brilliance now, too.  Thickets of this native shrub grow along the trailside stream.

Thickets of a second red-twigged dogwood, Silky Dogwood, also crowd the streambanks, and the two species would be easy to confuse when seen from a distance.  But observed closely, it's easy to see how different their barks are.  Silky Dogwood, seen here on the left, has its light-colored lenticels occurring in long stripes along the twigs, while the lenticels of Red Osier appear as dots.  This distinction makes the two shrubs easy to differentiate, even in winter.