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!


The Furry Gnome said...

Wonderful pictures of some alpine/bog plants which I've known up the Bruce Peninsula.

Woody Meristem said...

You had a perfect day to be above timberline -- not every day is that pleasant. Good finds; it's fortunate that the handrails tend to keep foot traffic off the rare plants.

virginiabt28 said...

Such a perfect day, and a wonderful look at all those alpine plants. When my daughter and I hiked the high peaks, we often went in June and saw so many of the flowers you describe. I'm sorry that you had to pay for your hike with sore knees.