Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Canal Park in Early June: A Virtual Walk Where Two Rivers Meet

The annual explosion of spring and summer wildflowers is well underway! In normal times (meaning, before this pandemic) I'd be very busy leading nature walks for various conservation groups. But this spring, all have been canceled.   One of those groups, the Schenectady County-based organization called ECOS (The Environmental Clearinghouse), plans to offer would-be participants a virtual experience of what they might have expected to encounter on these walks.  This blog post, then, attempts to portray something of what we would have experienced if our June 2 walk at Canal Park  had proceeded as originally planned.

Canal Park, located in Rensselaer County just across the Hudson River from the Saratoga-County village of Stillwater, is known as a wonderful site for botanical exploring.  Here, where the Hoosic River joins the Hudson just below Lock 4 of the Champlain Canal, rich alluvial flats and steep shale cliffs provide not just a beautiful woodsy place to walk, but also habitat for many remarkable plants.

Our adventure would start here (see the photo below) after parking our cars in the ample paved area adjoining Lock 4.  We are looking downstream toward where the canal rejoins the main river and where the Hoosic joins the Hudson. The trailhead for our walk lies just beyond where the fence ends. On several occasions, my friends and I have seen Bald Eagles soaring over these waters in search of prey or perching in treetops along the banks.We have also watched as boats -- from canal barges to luxury yachts -- pass through the lock, bypassing the rapids roiling the main course of the river.

Our trail promptly leads us into the deep shade of the woods, where trees lean over the canal from steep rocky heights.  Here,  we can search among soft green mosses for such low-growing woodland plants as Partridgeberry, Wintergreen, or Pussytoes.

A number of woodland shrubs can be found along this shaded woodsy part of the trail, among them the blueberry relative called Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), which we usually find in bloom in early June.

The Deerberry flowers are wider and more open than blueberry flowers would be, and the long needle-thin pistils and protruding brown stamens are distinctive features of these blooms.  When ripe, the Deerberry fruits are a lovely shad of aqua, faintly dotted with white.  While not poisonous, they are too hard and sour to be considered palatable.  Perhaps, as their name suggests, they are best left to be consumed by deer.

We shortly arrive at the junction of the two rivers, where the sunlit shale-lined shore provides habitat for many sun-loving plants.  Among those blooming in early June is White Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), its pretty white flowers tinged with purple.

We then turn and head upstream along the Hoosic River's high steep banks, the river rushing over rapids far below.

Almost as soon as we make the turn, we encounter the bright-yellow blooms of Frostweed (Crocanthemum canadense). This summer flower gets that wintry-sounding name because of the distinctive curls of frozen sap that form around the stems the first sub-freezing mornings of autumn.

Almost directly across the trail from the Frostweed we find a patch of low-growing Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) with its clusters of beautiful hot-pink blooms.

Further along this riverside trail, if we're lucky we might find our lovely native orchid, the Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule).  Only one or two of these beautiful flowers do we find at this site each year in early June.

Eventually, our elevated trail slopes downward until we arrive at a low-lying area where the Hoosic makes a bend. This low flat area is flooded each spring, creating an alluvial plain with very rich soil, where many interesting native plants thrive and grow to prodigious size.

Among those plants that grow here not only abundantly but also to unusually large size is the Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium).  Related to Jack-in-the-Pulpits, the Green Dragon produces a long thin spathe that contains the cluster of florets (spadix) within.  Although the New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas indicates that this is not a rare plant, neither I nor any of my botanically interested friends have seen it growing anywhere else but here.

Many other remarkable native plants thrive in this rich alluvial soil later on in the summer:  Joe Pye Weed, Giant Ragweed, Great Lobelia, Great St. Johnswort, American Germander, are just a few I could name.  One could search this blog for posts about "Canal Park" to discover what other plants I have photographed here in other months, but in the meantime I will end this walk with just one more flower I've found blooming here in June.  Who could have guessed that a flower called Canada Onion (Allium canadense) could be so pretty? And those dainty little pink blooms emerging from a pod-full of bulblets are meant to be attractive to pollinators, not just to us. When it comes to reproduction, this little plant doesn't mess around. Those bulblets will fall off into the mud to produce new clones of the plant, while the flowers will sexually produce seeds after pollination.  Quite a feat for a little onion!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Beautiful Buds at Mud Pond

Another great day to be outdoors!  And I feel so lucky to have so many wonderful places to do just that. Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park is one of those places, and the trail that surrounds it was especially inviting today, with the pond's blue water reflecting a mostly clear sky.

The sunlight was pouring down through the still-open canopy, illuminating the baby Red Maple leaves that had just burst from their buds. The branches looked as if they had ignited with tongues of flames.

Backlit by the sun, the still-translucent baby leaves resembled stained glass with the colored light pouring through.

The twigs of the Red Maple saplings ended in elegantly overlapping bud scales, out of which exploded a cluster of ruby-red unfurling leaves.

The Striped Maples, too, offered buds of exquisite beauty, although of a subtler hue,  a pale jade-green overlaid with dusty rose.  The ends of the twigs held a trio of downy plump buds, secured by bud scales of a deep wine-red.

More of these lovely pink buds were held aloft in pairs along the moss-green twigs.

There's a huge Nannyberry shrub on the shore of the pond, loaded with buds that have opened to reveal not only the glossy emerging leaves, but also the still-tightly-budded flower cluster nestled within.

There's a stream here that flows from surrounding mountains down to the pond, and the banks of this stream hold uncountable numbers of Dutchman's Breeches plants. Most of those plants held no flowers or only tightly budded ones as yet.  This was one that came close to blooming today.

I followed that stream to where it entered the pond, then searched a nearby rise where in other years I had found Round-lobed Hepaticas with remarkable colors.  My search was not in vain.  Hepaticas typically bloom in shades ranging from white through lavender to purple, but here were blooms of a most unusual baby blue.  Such a pretty and quite unexpected color!

And wow, look at these!  Such a deep-purple merging toward magenta, another really unusual hue for hepatica.This shore is the only place I have ever found hepaticas blooming with such a saturated color, and I really didn't know if I would ever find them here again.   Today was my lucky day!

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Quiet Woods, At Last! And a Lovely One, Too.

Another cold rainy day today!  Yesterday, the same.  On Saturday, we had the only one warm sunny day this past week, and I knew I wouldn't be the only one wanting to head for the woods.  My hope was that maybe the Denton Preserve over in Washington County might not be mobbed, and I held on tight to that hope as I witnessed over-crowded parking areas at every park I passed.  But my hope held out.  There was only one car at the Denton trailhead, and before I could even start to feel crowded by THAT, my grumpiness turned to delight when I discovered that the car's solo occupant was my best nature buddy Sue Pierce!  Yay!  We've kept apart during this corona pandemic, but here we were, together at last, happy to explore together one of our favorite woods, masks in place and keeping a careful distance from one another.

One of the features that makes this shale-underlaid woods so special is the abundance of one of spring's prettiest wildflowers, appropriately named Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana).  And I'm not exaggerating when I say "abundance."  There's a several-acred site well off in the heart of this woods that is virtually carpeted with their pink-striped white blooms.  It was hard to find a place to stoop to take a photo without trampling on them  So pretty!

Here's another plant we come to this preserve to find, a graminoid called Rough-leaved Rice Grass (Oryzopsis asperifolia).  The New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas shows this grass as present in almost every county in the state, but this woods is the only place I have ever found it.  I love the squiggly little white fuzzy flowers that protrude from each spikelet.

Lots of bright-yellow Trout Lilies were blooming throughout the woods,  dangling deep-red anthers.

I love this little tableau of the forest floor: pretty purple Round-leaved Hepatica blooms, a baby White Pine seedling, and the mottled leaves of Trout Lily plants.

We almost overlooked a big patch of Mayapple sprouts, just barely out of the ground.  See how the flower bud protrudes from the tightly wrapped baby leaves.  As the plant matures, the leaves will grow to enormous size, surmounting the single white flower, which will bloom beneath the shade of those large flat leaves.

As we maneuvered our way through a muddy swale, I noticed these small lacquer-red fern fiddleheads.  Unless someone can tell me otherwise, I'm assuming these are the unfurling fronds of Sensitive Fern, since they were surrounded by numerous spore stalks that I recognized as belong to that species.

Another fun find of the day was this greenish jelly glob of what we thought might be salamander eggs.  We fished them out of the vernal pool where we'd found them submerged, in order to see them more clearly, promptly replacing them once we'd each has a chance to photograph them.

After Sue and I said good-bye, I decided to drive over to Spier Falls Road along the Hudson River at Moreau.  The day was so warm, I wondered if I might find the Early Saxifrage blooming among the boulders that line the road.  Not quite, as I soon discovered.  But they still looked quite pretty, the tightly clustered flower buds nestled among shiny-green basal leaves that look as if they had been cut out with pinking shears. The saxifrage clumps share the ledges of these rugged spring-watered boulders with masses of Fountain Moss.

Oh look, here's one little cluster of saxifrage buds that has opened a few of its flowers!  If the weather would only turn just a bit warmer, these boulders will soon explode with blooms in a veritable rock garden of spectacular beauty.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Invasive Species Alert!

One of my good botanical friends, Sigrin Newell, sent me this reminder about an invasive plant called Summer Snowflake, which shortly will be coming into bloom, and I want to share what she had to say about it here. Here's what the flower in question looks like:

And here's what Sigrin wrote to tell me about it:
For the next several weeks, there is a pretty flower blooming in many gardens. Summer Snowflake (Lecojum aestivum) has the potential of becoming invasive. This plant is a good entry into a larger discussion of emerging invasives. These are escaped ornamental plants that have been found growing in woods and on roadsides. Eradication efforts made now can potentially stop the plant from getting out of control and becoming truly invasive.

My botanist friends and I were hiking in Anchor Diamond Preserve, near Ballston Spa, New York. There we found Summer Snowflake blooming deep in the woods, far away from any cultivated garden. 

Concerned that a garden flower had made such inroads into a nature preserve a long way from anyone's garden, one of us sent some photos to Steve Young at New York Flora Association, who immediately got back to tell us that he had encountered a whole half-acre of this plant in a nature preserve in Onondaga County. “Its invasiveness is a concern,” he said.
When I read this reply, I began to worry. I have been growing and enjoying Leucojum for several years. If we are seeing the beginning of another invasive scourge, we need to get the word out widely so that it can be stopped before the plant crowds out our native wildflowers. The Leucojum in my garden went from four bulbs to nearly two dozen plants in a couple of years. Once it grabs hold in the woods, it could spread quickly. Sources on the web say that the seeds are wind and water dispersed, and thus get deep into the woods.
I checked the web and many gardening sites are recommending the plant, praising its ability to increase rapidly on clay. However, there are also reports of invasions elsewhere. In England, it has been recorded that flooding causes the stems to break and the fruits to be carried downstream and stranded in river debris on flood-plains or high on the banks during floods. All species of Leucojum contain poisonous alkaloids, indicating that they have few natural predators to keep the population in control. This adds up to a recipe for an invasion within a few years. We could have another Purple Loosestrife on our hands.
Since Summer Snowflake is a lovely flower that is still being sold in many garden centers, it is important to get the word out. People need to know of the problem. The flowers make fine indoor bouquets that last for up to a week. Merely picking the flowers and bringing them indoors will prevent the seeds from being dispersed.

Sigrin added the information that there is an organization that tracks invasive species and works to eradicate them, especially the emerging ones where there is hope of stopping their spread. The Capital-Mohawk PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) coordinates efforts in eleven counties.
Their website has more information if you wish to pursue 
this issue. Anyone finding Leucojum growing in the woods or along a stream should report the location
to this organization.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Horsetails Are "In Bloom!"

The weather was much nicer on Thursday, sunny and warmer, with little wind. I thought I'd enjoy a walk at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail outside Saratoga, but wow, was it mobbed! Lots of families were out, with lots of children. It's great to see the kids in the woods, but I'm used to having the woods to myself, and I often had to step off the trail to maintain essential "social distancing." Consequently, I didn't stay long.  But I did stay long enough to find four species of Horsetail Reeds (Equisetum spp.), all in "bloom" (so to speak), being crowned with their strobili (spore-producing organs). Related to ferns and among the most ancient of plants on the planet, all of the horsetails I found today are woodland species that prefer a shaded and damp environment. 

Accessing the main trail from the Meadowbrook spur, I found the first of these horsetails, the Dwarf Horsetail (E. scirpoides), abounding in a low muddy swale that is crossed by a boardwalk. There, among the convoluted tangles of tiny wiry green stems, I found for the first time I've ever seen them, several strobili held aloft on the ends of some stems.  This horsetail species is said to prefer a calcareous habitat, a soil chemistry confirmed by the nearby presence of many Maidenhair Ferns, which are often an indicator of lime-rich soil.

The horsetail species most commonly encountered along Bog Meadow Trail (and probably everywhere else) is the Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). This species is at its most interesting stage of growth in spring, which is when it produces two very different looking plants, the tan-colored fertile stalks crowned with strobili and the sterile green plants that look like tiny Christmas trees. The green ones will persist by photosynthesizing throughout the growing season, growing taller and with longer branches. The fertile stalks will wither away, once the spores are dispersed.

Another species often encountered at Bog Meadow is the Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum). This is our only horsetail with multiple branching, which gives the plant a very lacy look as it matures. This species bears its strobili atop some of its green stalks. The strobili will fall off once the spores are dispersed, while the rest of the plant will continue to grow, spreading its lacy branches throughout the summer. At Bog Meadow, Wood Horsetail occupies the same low swales as Field Horsetail and often intermingles with it. (I added a photo of the two species growing side-by-side later in the growing season.)

As its name implies, Water Horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) grows in standing water. There are many areas along Bog Meadow Trail that meet that condition, and that's where you will find abundant populations of this very attractive species. Some of the individuals in a population will bear strobili atop their stalks, spore-bearing organs that will fall off once the spores are dispersed. I think this species has a very beautiful strobilus, as ornamental as a jeweled Easter egg.

Here's what that Water Horsetail will look like a bit later in spring, adding beautiful textural detail to the botanical mix that flourishes in the watery spots along this trail.

Quite often, when I mention my admiration for Horsetail Reeds, the response from others is "Ugh! What a nasty invasive!"  I guess they must be thinking of another native horsetail called Scouring Rush (E. hyemale), a sun-loving species that can indeed be quite an aggressive colonizer of its preferred habitat.  But the Horsetail Reeds I'm usually waxing enthusiastic about all grow in shady wooded wetlands,  where they coexist quite happily with many other native plants: Skunk Cabbage, Red and Nodding Trilliums, Golden Ragwort, Wood Anemone, Clintonia, Toothwort, Spring Beauty, Foamflower, Hooked Crowfoot, Marsh Marigold, Bog Buckbean, Dog Violets, Miterwort, Leatherwood, Spice Bush, and many other native plants too numerous to list.  After examining the mixed-plant photos I included here, I think most folks would certainly agree that "MY" horsetails are not behaving invasively or aggressively here along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


Oh my gosh, it is SO COLD!  Down into the 20s last night, and barely above 40 today, with winds gusting to over 20 miles per hour at times.  Spring sure seems to be taking a pause, just when the flowers were starting to come alive. Wondering how those flowers were bearing up, I donned my fleece coat and wool scarf and headed out to the Skidmore Woods to check on them this blustery afternoon.

Well, it seems that the wind had blown the petals off of the Bloodroot, since all that remained of the plants I could find were stems sticking up from folded leaves.  I did find plenty of Trout Lilies, but most had flowers that were barely open.  Were they still in the process of opening?  Or had they closed up again from the cold?

I bet it was the latter, since I did find this beautiful group wide open, where the sun was warming their snug niche in the shelter of the roots of a tree.

Here was a Trout Lily still in tight bud, thrusting up out of a compact mound of tightly curled moss. The moss looked so odd and unfamiliar to me, I took a closer look. Huh! It looked as if the long pointed leaves of the moss had curled up tight, as if each stem was wrapping its arms around itself as if shivering from the cold.  At closer range, the moss looked like Atrichum undulatum to me, a moss I know temporarily shrivels up when deprived of moisture.  With that cold wind gusting so hard today, it would be quite desiccating, so it did make sense to me that the moss would react this way.

I found few other flowers blooming in the woods today, with the exception of Spicebush shrubs that were sporting little puffs of bright-yellow blooms along their otherwise bare branches.  These appear to be male flowers, with anthers protruding.  Female flowers are borne on separate shrubs, but I could not find any female flowers today.

No Columbine flowers yet, but I did find their scalloped leaves, including this pretty cluster, so remarkably purple!

The Mayapple shoots, folded tight as furled umbrellas, were already pushing up through the leaf litter, the two-leaved plants bearing green flower buds, which were peeking out from between the unfolding leaves. As the plant matures, the leaves will surmount the single large white flower, which will bloom beneath the shade of the large flat leaves.

What a surprise it was, to find these fat buds of Large-flowered Bellwort, the dangling yellow flowers already pushing through their green bracts.  Considering that we're due for another sub-freezing night tonight, I wish these beautiful flowers had waited another week to emerge from the safe shelter of their buds.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Back Bay Beauty

Rainy, windy, and cold today. Brrrrr! The weather was much more pleasant on Monday, when I walked around the back bay of Moreau Lake. The Shadblow trees (Amelanchier sp.) overhanging the lake were not quite in bloom, but the dusty-pink buds were quite lovely in their own right.

 I was lucky to find a patch of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) that still had some fresh white blooms, although others in the patch were already fading. 

Probably my prettiest find of the day was a patch of a very small species of Haircap Moss (Polytrichum piliferum), its sperm cups crowded together in a colorful mass. This species has the common name of Bristly Haircap, suggested by the presence of fine white hairs at the end of each inrolled leaf.  When Haircap sperm cups mass together like this, they remind me of a carpet of tiny roses, sprinkled with the starry shapes of the leaves.