Saturday, June 29, 2019

New Friends, Newly Blooming Flowers Atop Whiteface Mountain

What a gorgeous day it was yesterday to climb to the very top of Whiteface Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the Adirondacks!  Especially when you can drive all but one-fifth of a mile from the summit.  And I got to meet some new nature lovers at the same time (some are pictured above).

I was so happy when my friends Evelyn Greene and Bonnie Vicki invited me to join a few of their mutual friends to venture up this spectacular peak.  I have been up here twice before with a group from the New York Flora Association, so I remembered the thrilling experience of climbing the Stairway Ridge Trail, a footpath with sturdy handrails to help even the most acrophobic to reach the summit.

As we climbed the trail, we were treated to an aerial show of Ravens swooping and soaring, riding the updrafts and croaking their joy on this gorgeous blue-sky day.

That's Lake Placid way down there below.

But this Stairway Ridge Trail is great not just for the spectacular views that it offers.  For a plant nerd like myself, it offers a chance to get close-up views of many alpine species without fear of trampling the fragile habitat.  All I had to do was lean over the railing to take this photo of Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) in bloom.

I immediately recognized the leaves of this blueberry relative from when I had ventured up here on previous late-summer trips, but then the low-growing shrub had been in fruit.  On this late-June day, the shrub was hung with the pretty little pink bells of its flowers.  I had never before seen this shrub in bloom.

The last time I was up here, five years ago in August, the low-growing dwarf dogwood called Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) was studded with beautiful bright-red berries.   Today it was in beautiful bright-white bloom!  Masses of beautiful bright-white bloom!

Masses and masses and masses of beautiful bright-white bloom!

Many of the late-summer flowers I had found up here in previous years were not yet in bloom on this June day, some not yet even in bud. But others that back then were long past their flowering time were now, on this lovely June day, in full and spectacular bloom.

Here's a closer view of Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia), the deep-pink flowers in the photo above.

And here's a closer look at the white puffs in the photo above, the flower clusters of Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum).

I remember we found some currant plants on our previous trips in August,  although they held neither flowers nor fruits at the time.  But now the currant shrubs held clusters of small pinkish flowers.  I am not sure whether this plant is Skunk Currant (Ribes glandulosum) or Wild Red Currant (R. triste), both of which have been documented to grow on this summit.

UPDATE:  I returned to Whiteface Mountain on July 9, when I reexamined these currant shrubs and found the smooth twigs and bristly fruits that are diagnostic for Skunk Currant. Also, when I broke a twig, I detected the odor that suggested this shrub's common name.  Here's a photo of those bristly berries:

The ground-hugging leaves of Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) were sprawled across many of the rocks up here today, but only a few held the open white flowers.  There sure were plenty of buds, however, so their flowering season has only just begun.

A true alpine species, Boott's Rattlesnake Root (Nabalus boottii) is one of the rarest plants in all the world.  An Endangered species in New York and known from only a few mountain peaks in New York and New England, it is also classified as Threatened around the globe.  But you sure wouldn't have guessed at its rarity if you had seen the thriving patches of its leaves we found yesterday! I also remember seeing it flowering in August five years ago up here.  Even then,  it was quite robust, with abundant plants teeming from cracks in the parking-lot pavement!

Here is another alpine rarity, the Northern Single-spike Sedge (Carex scirpoidea).  Known from only six locations in all of New York State, it thrives atop Whiteface Mountain, and I found more plants of it on this trip than I have the three other times I have seen it up here.

And here's another truly rare plant, the Lesser Pyrola (Pyrola minor), known to grow up here atop Whiteface and nowhere else in the state, last time I heard. When Evelyn asked me to join her friends to come up here this early, I jumped at the chance, hoping I would see (and photograph!) this tiny native pyrola at last in bloom.  (I had previously seen it only in fruit when I visited in late summer.) But as you can see from the tight orbs of its buds, I have missed its bloom time once more.  Sigh!  Such is the frequent plight of the rare-plant pursuer!

But that doesn't mean I can't come back in a week or two and perhaps it will be in bloom then!  Hope springs eternal.  But luck seems to cling to this little plant. A few years ago,  it barely escaped extirpation during work on the toll highway that climbs up this mountain, and today it is thriving as never before.  And now I know exactly where to find it, and I won't have to walk very far or through rugged terrain to do so.

Speaking of rugged terrain . . . !  Looking back, I should have joined my other friends to take the elevator down to the parking lot from the summit, instead of following my pal Bonnie down the steep hiking trail through the krummholz (the climate-stunted trees that grow just below the timberline).

Here's another view from the hiking trail, revealing how steep the descent.    (And also revealing a color spectrum up there in the sky, which I never noticed until I downloaded this photo!)

I remembered descending this trail with relative ease five years ago, but that was before I shattered my kneecap into so many pieces it never healed smooth and by now has chewed the cartilage away from my leg bone.  This trail is not hard if you have two legs to lift and lower your weight up and down and over steep boulders. By the time we reached the road and made our way back to our cars, I could hardly walk.  Oh well, it sure was a beautiful hike, with spectacular views all around, if also a painful one.

If only I'd brought my bathing suit, I could have soaked my swelling knee in the chill and surging waters beneath this gorgeous waterfall we stopped at along the way home.  Called Split Rock Falls, it's a popular swimming spot for local kids, as well as some of this day's hiking buddies (who are probably well past the age when they could be called "kids" except in jest!).

My friends took their swim in a quieter pool downstream from where these young folks were climbing the cliffs and leaping into the foaming water.   Damn that knee!  I know that if not for that damaged joint, nothing (except perhaps better sense) would have stopped me from joining them!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Rare Plant? Could Be. Let's Find Out!

Regular readers of this blog may remember this photo I posted last Wednesday, confessing I didn't know what this plant was.  In that same post I then described how some plant-expert Facebook friends suggested it was probably a state-listed Threatened species called Borodinia missouriensis (or Boechera missouriensis, as some other sources call it).  This photo shows the plant gone to seed, displaying its distinctive arching siliques.  Could I find the same species in flower?

Well, yes!  I could!  So I returned to the site and collected another specimen, one that still had its tiny four-petaled white flowers just peeking out of its clustered buds.  And while I was there, on a powerline trail that runs along the top of Mud Pond at Moreau, I counted over 40 individual plants along a stretch of trail maybe 50 yards long. Wow!  If this truly is that threatened Borodinia missouriensis (also called Green Rock Cress), it isn't exactly a rare plant at this location! I will send both specimens -- one in seed, the other in flower -- to a state botanist who will ascertain this plant's identity for sure.

Meanwhile, I remembered finding a plant that looked like this along the sandy shore of a cove at Moreau Lake, so I went there today to see if I could find it.  I was planning to walk along the shore, the same shore where a few years back I found another rare plant called Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum), that one an Endangered species and really rare.  This would be a good time to also check on that population.  Or so I thought.  But when I reached where that shore once was, I had to think again.  This year, the lake is so high the water reaches all the way into the woods.  There remains no sandy shore.

I remembered exactly one location where that mountain mint had thrived by the hundreds.  Today, that location was well under water, thanks to a spring and summer when it has rained nearly every day. (And since Moreau Lake is a kettle lake with no inlet or outlet, whatever water falls into it, stays in it.)  Oh dear!  Will our Whorled Mountain Mint population survive this flooding?

Probably it will.  I still found many plants of Whorled Mountain Mint on higher ground, so I imagine this native plant will spread out again once the flooding recedes.

Also there, on what little remained of a shore between water and steep forested banks, I found the other plant I believed I might find here, the Mustard-family plant we believe could be Borodinia missouriensis, its distinctive arching seedpods reflecting the afternoon light.

I counted at least a dozen there along the shore, and then when I continued on, I found quite a number more of the same, back in the shady woods.   I'm SO glad to know that, whatever its name, this plant is happy here!

And was I happy, too?  Well, what do you think this certifiably nutty plant nerd was?  Ya, you betcha!  Oh heck, I'll even be happy enough if this mystery mustard turns out to be just another common weed.  At least I will then know its name and I can enter it on my life list.

In the meantime, I also delighted in all the pretty pink Pasture Roses (Rosa carolina) that were blooming along this shore, wafting their incredible fragrance on the warm humid air of this muggy day. I could distinguish this low-growing rose from similar roses by its solitary flower, narrow stipules, and the few straight slender thorns on the upper branches.  Mmm, I can almost detect its scent just by gazing at this photo!

I also enjoyed finding the yellow trumpets of Bush Honeysuckle flowers (Diervilla lonicera), the leaves glossy-green in the rain that was falling steadily by now.

Here was a Painted Turtle!  Was she out of the water, wandering the shore, looking for that broad sandy beach where she laid her eggs last year?

Sorry, Mama.  That broad sandy beach is well under water this year. I hope you find another spot to your liking.

Does anyone remember resting on this bench, watching the sun go down behind the mountains that rise from the western shore?  Or does anyone remember how we feared that Moreau Lake was draining out through a crack in the earth's crust or something awful like that, its water level having dropped four feet --FOUR FEET!!! -- in just a few years?  I wonder now how many years will pass before we can sit on this bench once again.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Oh, but Monday was a lovely day for a paddle on the Hudson!  It was warm and calm and the sky was actually much bluer than this photo makes it out to be.  One other thing this photo doesn't reveal, is that the current was swift and strong beneath that smooth calm surface.  It took quite an effort to paddle against the constant pull of the current, so when my arms grew weary I found a resting place in one of the quiet coves that can be found along this stretch of the river between the dams at Spier Falls and Sherman Island.

As soon as I entered this calm and shaded cove, I was delighted by this cluster of native Blue Flags (Iris versicolor), their vivid amethyst blooms glowing among a foil of green ferns and swirling grasses, the beauty of this arrangement mirrored in the dark, still water.

And look!  I wasn't the only one drawn to these beautiful blooms.  Do you see the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly landing on one of the flowers?

Here's a closer look at that spectacular butterfly.

I am super grateful for the many Blue Flags that abounded along the river banks, for they were just about the only wildflower I found today.  With all the rain we've had this spring and summer, the river has risen well up the banks to even enter the shaded woods, and the variety of sun-loving wildflowers that in other years line the banks were nowhere to be found.  Luckily, Iris versicolor doesn't seem to mind.  Out on the flowing river, I found many patches of Iris looking as splendid as this  one.

Unfortunately, I also found several clumps of Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), an introduced species that is proving to be extremely invasive along riverbanks and streambeds.  Since I did not carry a shovel or pickaxe with me to dig out the stubborn roots, I broke off every flower I could find, including developing buds, to prevent this clump from producing seed that would float to other parts of the riverbank and produce new plants.  I ask my readers to do the same, if they find this invasive species on their paddling adventures.

Those Yellow Iris flowers can be seen in the stern of my canoe, which I've pulled up onto the shore of one of the islands that dot this stretch of the Hudson.  In past years, this island was teeming with a huge variety of native wildflowers: four different species of St. Johnswort, two different species of Arrowhead, masses of Golden Pert, the bristly little orbs of Branching Bur-reed, carpets of Bluets and Blue-eyed Grass, and two native orchids that bloom in June, the tiny Shining Ladies' Tresses and the greenish-yellow Tubercled Orchis.  Today, I found not a one.

I did, however find a small patch of Small Sundrops (Oenothera perennis), a species of Evening Primrose that opens its flowers during the day.

I was so glad to find these bright-yellow native beauties, I had to take another photo of them!

And here was another native plant with yellow flowers, our native Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), this one a woody shrub that grows high up on the bank, far from the rushing river that has drowned most of our waterside wildflowers this year.

While still producing buds for new flowers, this Bush Honeysuckle shrub is already sprouting seed pods.   I always get a laugh out of seeing these funny-shaped pods.  They look as if they could have been designed by Dr. Seuss!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

New Flower for My Life List!

 After some 20 years of documenting all the wildflowers I find, it's not that often these days that I come upon one I have not yet recorded in my wildflower journal.  But on Thursday this week, I found one I'd never noticed before,  the big white Morning-Glory-like bloom in the photo above, called Low (or Erect) Bindweed (Calystegia spithamaea).

 I was walking with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, and we had almost returned to our cars after a full morning's walk through the woods of the park's Fox Parcel when we spied this really large white flower protruding from a general carpet of lupine and dewberry in an open meadow.  It was so large and so stunningly white, we wondered how we could have missed it on our way into the preserve along this same trail. Perhaps, as is true for Morning Glories on days that are gray and threatening rain, the flower had not yet opened when we passed this way three hours before.  But we sure noticed it now!

At first sight, I assumed it was the very common Hedge Bindweed (Calystegia sepium), which usually has pinker flowers but occasionally ones of pure white. But as soon as I saw our flower's leaves, I knew it could not be that.   These leaves were not only of a quite different shape from those of Hedge Bindweed, they were also quite furry, with hairs on both the front and back of the leaves as well as along the short stem.  We also noticed that it was not blooming on a long trailing vine but rather on a shorter, more erect stalk.

  One of our group, Lois Klatt, expertly followed the key in Newcomb's Wildflower Guide to find a perfect match for our flower on page 198.  Low (or Upright) Bindweed it was!  A new one for me, as well as for most of us fellow wildflower enthusiasts in the Thursday Naturalists.  And a native plant, to boot!  Low Bindweed is demonstrably secure in New York, so it is not classified as a rare plant by any measure, but it was still a new one for me.  Hurray!

Just for comparison's sake, here are two very similar flowers we considered at first, the pinkish Hedge Bindweed I mentioned above (also a native plant in New York), and the pure-white Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), an introduced species.  Both of these plants grow on long vining stems and often entwine other plants, growing so rampantly as to be considered invasive at times. (Low Bindweed has too short a stalk to entwine any other plants.)

Also for comparison's sake, I show the leaves of these two ostensible look-alikes.  The leaf of Hedge Bindweed, with its tapering point and deep squared-off lobes, is on the left.  That of Field Bindweed, with its more oval shape and sharply pointed flaring lobes, is on the right.  It is such differences that help us find a correct identification for many of the plants we find, especially those with flowers that look so much alike.