Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Violet Hunt Along the Hudson

We've had so much rain this spring, our rivers have remained rushing torrents long after in other years I would have been paddling their quiet waters. And many of the native wildflowers I paddle to visit can't yet be found, since their usual sites are still well under water.  So when my friend Sue invited me to join her for a trip to the Hudson River shores north of Warrensburg, I had my doubts we would find many of the rare plants this stretch of riverbank is famous for.  But it's still a beautiful shore, with interesting marble outcroppings, and the path from the parking lot to the river passes through a pine woods abounding in gorgeous Pink Lady's Slippers.  So of course I said yes, let's go!

When we reached the river's edge, we were immediately struck by the scent of cherry blossoms filling the air.  In all the years I've been exploring this site, I have never seen such an abundance of Dwarf Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa) sprawling across the rocks.  It seems that, instead of damaging the plants, the excessive flooding we've experienced this spring has only encouraged the vigor of this threatened species of low-growing cherry.  The blossoms were as beautiful as they were fragrant.

It was obvious from the damp sand and flood-flattened grasses along the shore that the river had only recently receded. I was sorry to see this, since I had hoped I might find here again the rare Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia var. primulifolia) I had discovered among the shoreline pebbles a few years back. Could ANYthing be growing yet, on land so recently under water?  Sue helped me search the gravelly shoreline.

My hopes leaped high when she spotted some tiny white violets struggling up from the mud, for the Primrose-leaved Violet bears a white flower.  But this violet had heart-shaped leaves, not the more ovate ones that distinguish the Primrose-leaved one.  This violet looked to be one of our early white violets that I have difficulty distinguishing, either V. pallens or V. blanda,  both pretty but neither one rare.

A second white violet raised my hopes again, but again, the shape of the leaves revealed that this was not the one I was seeking.  Those long slender leaves indicated that this was the Lance-leaved Violet (V. lanceolata), not V. primulifolia.  An interesting find, but not a rare species.

But then, at last, Eureka!  Here was the sought-after Primrose-leaved Violet, tucked in among the rocks down close to the water.  This solitary plant appeared considerably diminished from the many-stemmed clump of them I had found just two years ago, but it was still hanging on, despite the rushing torrents that could have uprooted it. This violet, classified as a Threatened species in New York, surprised state botanists by appearing here, far from any other location it has been documented as growing.

The Primrose-leaved Violet, though, is not the only exceptional violet said to grow on this remarkable riverside.  Botanical records reveal that another, even rarer violet has been found at this site, the purple-flowered New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae). In fact, there is no other place in all of New York from which this species of violet, classified as Endangered,  has been reported.  I, personally, had never found it, despite diligent searching for several years.  But with hopes buoyed by the Primrose-leaved find, I decided to search for the New England Violet once again.

There are several species of purple-flowered violets that grow on this shore, so of course, I had to bend down to examine each one, to see if I could detect any distinguishing characteristics. Again and again, none of the purple-flowering violets struck me as being unusual, even this wooly ovate-leaved one, which I recognized as the Northern Downy Violet (Viola sagittata var. ovata), a common denizen of gravelly, sandy habitats.  Pretty, but not the one I was looking for.

(Another pretty inhabitant here, this brightly-colored American Lady Butterfly, distracted me momentarily from my botanical searching. This butterfly can be distinguished from the remarkably similar Painted Lady by the larger eyespots on the lower wings and a single white spot on each upper wing.  By such subtle but critical distinctions are species separated, whether botanical or zoological!)

After several hours of exploring the eastern shore of the Hudson and finding many other interesting plants (but no New England Violets), our hunger for food began to overcome our hunger for more botanizing, so we headed back to Warrensburg for some lunch before we drove around to the western shore of the river.  Thus fortified, we made our way down to the rocky outcroppings that typify the shoreline here.

This side of the riverbank is distinguished by many seeping springs and pools in the rocks, and the water levels were still so high, we had difficulty making our way without wading through shin-deep water.  Also, none of the more interesting plants that grow close to the river were yet in bloom.  No Sticky Tofieldia nor Rose Pogonia, not even some Kalm's Lobelia nor Harebells were anywhere to be seen.  So we headed up the banks toward the woods, and that is where we found a beautiful patch of Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) glowing in the shade of the trees.

Almost hidden in the tall grass was a patch of the amusing little graminoid called Alpine Bulrush (Trichophorum alpinum).  I am always delighted by the white hairy tufts that give these Sedge-family plants the appearance of a group of tiny trolls.

A big patch of radiant Wild Columbine (Aqualegia canadensis) resembled ruby-glass lamps hung on wire-fine stems.

Sue and I were quite excited to find a patch of One-flowered Broomrape (Aphyllon uniflora) growing in exactly the same place we had seen it six years ago. Since this is a parasitic plant that feeds off nutrients provided by other organisms, it often disappears from a location once those nutrients have been depleted.  That had seemed to be the case in the intervening years, but somehow this plant found a way to bloom once more, right where we thought it was gone forever.

Lots of purple violets were blooming in the grass, most of them resembling the Common Blue Violet, but this cluster of blooms stood out for the intensity of its flowers' color. We were tired and my feet hurt from a full day of scrambling over rocks, so I almost passed them by without examining them.  But the sunlight picked out a distinctive hairiness of the stems, and the leaves looked narrower and more tapered than those of the Common Blues.  Oh heck, I decided, let's take a closer look.

That closer look revealed a violet flower that was far more hairy than any flower of Common Blue I had ever seen, and with hairs not confined to the lower petals but even tufting on the upper petals as well. My Newcomb's Wildflower Guide was no help to me here, since it included no violet that displayed this feature.  Could this be that rare New England Violet? Newcomb's didn't list that species nor describe it. There was no way I could know until I consulted a violet expert.  So I took lots of photos of various parts of the plant (leaves front and back, stem, spur, ovary and style, and more views of the flower's face) and went on my way.

I bet my readers have already guessed the happy ending of this story.  Thanks to confirmation from Steve Young, chief botanist for the New York Natural Heritage  Program, I can confidently assert that this violet really WAS the extremely rare New England Violet.  And I bet my readers can also guess how glad I am that I stopped to examine it.  Whoo hoo!  Yee haw!  High five!  Oh, happy day!  My fellow wildflower nerds will understand how psyched I am to have found it.


Raymond said...

Great find Jackie and a well told story!

Vonette said...

Thank you for sharing Such a thrilling adventure! Well done.

Woody Meristem said...

Congratulations on your special find. What a location that is!

Uta said...

Great that you are sharing your new find with us, congratulations.

wash wild said...

Both Peterson's guide and Marilyn Dwelley's Spring Wildflowers of New England cover the New England Blue, although perhaps not with the detail you needed. Both use the term 'bearded' and mention wet or rocky shores. Thanks to your post I'll be paying more attention to shoreline violets as I canoe. Now, the Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata) - that's one I'ld like to find.

The Furry Gnome said...

Wow! Great to find such a rarity!