Thursday, July 18, 2019

Stalking the Rare Wild Plants

Great St. John's Wort is a gorgeous native wildflower, with bright-yellow flowers nearly two inches across and standing tall on stems approaching four feet or more.  But sadly, this species (known by the scientific name Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum) is almost as rare as it is beautiful.  The New York Flora Association lists it as an S3 species, meaning it is known to occur in only 21 to 100 places in all the state.  I remember how excited I was when I found a small population of them on one of the islands in the Hudson River.  That was some years ago, and this past year I found a much larger population in a beaver meadow not far from where I found the first ones. This abundant patch convinced me I should invite Rich Ring, a rare-plants monitor for the New York Natural Heritage Program, to visit these sites to document the size and security of these populations.

 Rich said he'd be quite happy to do so.  Although Rich travels around the state to assess many rare plant populations, he told me he'd never seen these flowers in the wild, so we were in luck that at least a few were in full glorious bloom when we paddled the Hudson together this past Tuesday.  He brought along Dani Yashinovitz, a summer intern with the Natural Heritage Program, to assist in the documenting of each site. My friend Sue Pierce, newly retired and able at last to enjoy a weekday outing on the river,  also joined us, helping to spot any plants that may have escaped our searching.

Here's Rich instructing Dani in the fine points of documenting a rare-plant population.  The plant in question was blooming where Rich is pointing, right at the water's edge.  We had found others just a short distance away, about 13 individual plants in all.  Not a huge population, but one that I am lucky enough to find and enjoy every year.

On our way back to land, we detoured to visit another beautiful flower that was growing along these riverbanks.  I asked Rich if he could help me identify this plant, which I recognized as one of the Evening Primrose species (Oenothera spp.) known by the common name of Sundrops. But which one? Because of the overall hairiness of the plant's stem and leaves, my guess was that it was O. pilosella, or Prairie Sundrops, a species distinguished by its hairiness.  Rich said he tended to agree, and gathered a specimen of it for further analysis.

I included my hand in this photo of these Sundrops, in order to provide perspective regarding how large this flower is.

For contrast, here is a photo of the Small Sundrops (O. perennis) that grow in abundant numbers along this same stretch of the Hudson River.  We found lots and lots of these plants, while finding only that one small patch of the larger-flowered Sundrops.

We had to bushwhack a bit through a forest to reach our next destination, an open meadow at the edge of a beaver pond.  This meadow was hip high with many different sedges and ferns and flowering plants, including the Swamp Milkweed that Sue is photographing here.

Happily, our trophy plants were towering over  most of the other vegetation, so we could easily see their swelling yellow buds and occasional big yellow flowers. I asked Dani, a tall young woman, to stand next to this one so we could convey some idea of the plant's height.  We counted 49 individual plants of Great St. John's Wort at this site.

Part of the process of assessing a rare-plant site is noting the presence of other plants in the same area.  We were happy to note the presence of many different native ferns and grasses and flowering plants, including this towering stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata).

All the while we were assessing this pond-side meadow, Meadowhawk dragonflies appeared to be assessing us, flitting around us and hovering near, as if they had never seen such creatures as we were.  Possibly, they never had, since there was no regular easy access to this site, with no trails leading to it, and the creek that runs by it obstructed by fallen logs and beaver dams.  The dragonflies were in such constant motion, I never attempted a photograph.  Except for this amorous couple, who took some time out from their flitting to tend to other matters.

Wednesday, July 17:  Another rare plant, another site to assess
Nobody could deny that the Great St. John's Wort is a big beautiful flower.  I doubt they would say the same, however, about our next rare plant, which Rich and Dani returned to assess the next day, at two sites in Moreau Lake State Park. Called Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis), this state-listed Threatened species (S2) did have some small white flowers a month or more ago, but by now the plants had gone to seed, displaying the arching slender seedpods this Mustard-family plant is distinguished by.

Another feature that distinguishes Green Rock Cress is the number of stem leaves, which Rich was examining in the photo above and is photographing in this photo below.  Fewer than 30 leaves on the stem would indicate the plant was probably NOT the rare species of Borodinia but rather another, more common one (or possibly a hybrid).  Happily, most of the more than 150 plants we found today displayed the appropriate number of leaves.

We also found many of the leafy rosettes, sprouted this year from last year's seeds, with the typical leaf-shape that distinguishes B. missouriensis from other, more common species.

Our search for Green Rock Cress at Moreau Lake was not an easy one, thanks to high water this year that has completely swamped the sandy shore, with the lake rising well into the shrubby thickets that line the east side of the lake.  Our progress along this shore offered a choice of pushing through rain-drenched shrubs and branchy blow-down, scrambling up the steep forested banks, or wading along in the water.  Obsessed botanizers as we are, we pushed on, hot in pursuit of this rare plant, and constantly surprised by finding more plants, just when we thought our population had petered out. We did, of course, come to a place where we spied no more plants, almost half way along that side of the lake. I guess it would be fair to say that Borodinia missouriensis is not a rare plant at this lake.

There is a second, even rarer plant that inhabits these same shores, a state-listed Endangered species (S1) called Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum).  I'm sure that much of the large population of 273 plants Rich and I counted a few years ago is now under water. But happily, we found quite a few still present just where the water lapped the shore at the forest's edge.

And today, those plants were in bloom! (You have to look close to spy the tiny purple polka-dotted white florets.) As our legs brushed past the plants, we could detect the refreshing scent of mint on the air.

We were also granted a few moments' delight by the sight of this trio of Loons that swam close to shore.

UPDATE: An observant reader of this blog has pointed out the fishing lure dangling from the beak of the middle loon.  Let this be an admonishment to all anglers to please account for all their tackle and retrieve any barbed lures caught in tree branches or on fallen logs or in the mouths of fish tossed back after capture. I once had to free a frantic tiny Wood Duckling that was snagged in the bill by a lure that was dangling from an overhanging tree.  If you personally cannot retrieve such an object, please report it to someone who could.

After taking a break for lunch at a picnic area near the park's swimming beach (empty now, due to thunderstorm warnings), we next headed to the second site in Moreau Lake State Park where I'd found what I thought were Green Rock Cress. This site was along a powerline clearcut that lies just north of Mud Pond.  This site is far more sandy and sunlit than the forested site we explored in the morning. And when we got there, I sure  had a hard time detecting any remnants of them among the Sweet Fern and Scrub Oak that dominated the site.

Also, to dissuade my diligent searching, the rain that had been falling lightly began to come down in buckets.  But that didn't stop Rich, whose practiced eye quickly spotted plenty of the sought-after plants.  I forget exactly how many he found (30? 50?), but the smile on his rain-wet face indicates he had not been disappointed.


Unknown said...

Thank you. I enjoyed reading this.

Kathryn Grace said...

Always a delight to read of your botanical discoveries and adventures. Marvelous photos all. Thank you.

Jeff Nadler said...

If you look closely, you will see that a fishing lure is stuck on the middle loon bill. I helped out the loon program paddling out to photo the loon for analysis. It may be scheduled for capture and rescue.

Ron Gamble said...

WOW- good eye Jeff. Maybe you've got a technique down, but I'm predicting that capturing the loon will be a lot easier said than done!