Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Busy Wildflower Week

This was one busy week for wildflowers!  After such a cold snap the week before, the weather suddenly turned summer hot -- so hot, that flowers I'd been waiting to see in bloom went ahead and did so and proceeded to fade before I had a chance to catch them at their finest. So that set me on a quest this week to try to see as many as possible while I still had the chance.

Monday, May 25:  Bog Meadow Brook Nature Preserve, Saratoga Springs
When I'd last visited this wooded-wetland trail just a little more than a week before, I had counted nearly 150 Nodding Trilliums (Trillium cernuum) along a stretch of the trail, some already in bloom, but a few still in bud, and many tiny plants not yet mature enough to produce any flowers this year. Wondering if the ones still in bud might be the kind of hybrids I'd discovered last year, I hurried to where I had found the budding specimens.  But no, no hybrids this year.  All displayed the characteristics of the standard species: pure-white sharply reflexed petals, white pistil, and non-sessile anthers. And thanks to the growth of surrounding plants and the leafing out of shrubs, my diligent search could find only 12 specimens on this trip, the others well hidden now among the Sensitive Ferns and Skunk Cabbage thriving beneath the shrubs.

Slightly disappointed -- the hybrids HAD been quite a fascinating find! -- I nevertheless enjoyed my walk along about a mile of this two-mile trail, delighting in many of the beautiful wildflowers that lined the path.  A myriad of the tiny white flowers of Grove Sandwort (Moehringia lateriflora) spangled the trailside greenery like stars in the sky.

Almost as abundant as the tiny sandworts, many Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) added their beautiful color along the trail.

I have heard some folks complain that Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is overly aggressive, and it certainly does crowd the edges of Bog Meadow Trail.  But look how many other native species share this space with the horsetail's spiky stalks. There's that tiny white Grove Sandwort, but I also can find the leaves of Hog Peanut, Wild Strawberry, Wild Clematis, a leafy plant that could be a Meadow Rue, and most evident, the pretty purple flowers of a species of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium sp.).

Here's a closer look at those flowers of Blue-eyed Grass.

I love the colorful mix of bright-yellow Common Cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla simplex) with the delicate pale-purple blooms of Dog Violet (Viola labradorica). This violet can be distinguished from other blue violets by the sharply toothed stipules that wrap the leaf joints on the flower stems.

As our two earlier native species of bellworts have faded, the delicate yellow blooms of Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) start to dangle beneath leaves that appear to have been pierced by the flower stems. A look at the interior of the flower would reveal the presence of darker granules covering the inside of the petals, a distinguishing feature of this species.

Oh, I was so delighted to find some Glaucous Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica) mature enough to bloom with its terminal clusters of confetti-colored florets! Too often, this vining native honeysuckle grows too close to the edge of the trail, where overly diligent mowers tend to lop it off each year. I frequently find beginning shoots of it here, but only rarely do I find it in bloom.

Only 10 days ago, I had found many clusters of Bog Buckbean flowers (Menyanthes trifoliata) still in tight bud.  But in just that short time, the buds had opened, faded, and started to set seed, thanks to a couple of truly sweltering days.  Among all of the three-leaved plants that crowded a trailside pool, only one bore a few remaining blooms, so distinctive with all those curling hairs on the tops of their bright-white petals.

But while the Bog Buckbean was fading, hundreds of stems of Water Horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) were burgeoning in the same pools, adding a look of tropical greenery to this northern swamp.

And here was the crowning treasure of my trip to Bog Meadow Trail, a blossom-laden shrub of Early Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum).  This particular shrub grows way off the trail, hidden in the swampy woods, and if by some chance I would miss seeing its branches heavy with vividly rosy blooms, I would definitely detect its intoxicating fragrance on the air as I walked nearby. As I tried to arrange the branches for a better photo, I inadvertently broke off a flowering twig, which I carried home to place in a vase.  It perfumed my entire kitchen within an hour!

Wednesday, May 27: Cole's Woods in downtown Glens Falls
This was another too-sweltering day for this time of year, but a nice breeze and deep shade along the many trails in Cole's Woods made for a very pleasant morning walk there with my friend Sue Pierce. Disappointed to find that the dainty pink florets of Rose Twisted Stalk (a wildflower that abounds here) had already faded, we felt well compensated by the many, many blooming Starflowers (Lysimachia borealis) that were scattered across the forest floor. I find it hard to imagine a lovelier flower.

But the vividly colored Fringed Polygala (Poligaloides paucifolia) certainly equals the Starflower in beauty, with the beauty of each flower magnified when they bloom together.

The thread-fine florets of Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra) are difficult to photograph in the deep shade of the woods, its preferred habitat.  But a stray ray of sunlight lit up this flower cluster so brightly against the deep shade, I hardly had to fight with my camera to get a good-enough shot of it.

Crossing one of the bridges that spans Halfway Brook at the heart of this preserve, I noticed this cluster of Marsh Blue Violets (Viola cucullata) decorating a mossy clump.  Although I could not reach these flowers across the brook, I didn't need to examine them more closely to know what their species was.  No other blue violets bear their blooms so high above the leaves on slender stalks. Of course, the marshy habitat was another clue.

Again and again, we passed clusters of Clintonia leaves (Clintonia borealis) that bore no flowers, and I had begun to fear we were yet to early to find them in bloom.  But then, le voila!   We found whole bunches of them dangling their lily-like yellow-green flowers!  A fine treat to end our fine walk through a beautiful woods, a remarkably intact habitat for many native wildflowers, right in the middle of this busy city.

Thursday, May 30:  Spring Run Swamp, Saratoga Springs
Oof!  Another too-hot day!  I thought about staying home with the A/C on, but then I feared I would miss the flowering of a plant I had seen only in bud up to now. Besides, I had promised a friend I would show her the Swamp Saxifrage (Micranthes pensylvanica) that grows along a wooded stream with a swampy shore.  I had marked a spot on the trail that provided easy access down a bank to a spot where nearly 30 of these native wetland plants were thriving.  And lucky for us, all were in bloom today.

Here's a closer look at these odd little flowers, mostly sex parts and not much petal. 

There were many Water Avens plants (Geum rivale) blooming at the same site.  They may look like they're still in bud, but this is as far open as they will get.  The deep-red bracts almost completely cover the pale-yellow blooms within.

Ho hum, another Jack-in-the-Pulpit!  I'd already seen a hundred of these this week.  But wait, this one looked a little different.  I took a closer look.

Sure enough, a closer look revealed the raised white ridges that distinguish this subspecies, the Swamp Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum ssp. stewardsonii).  According to the New York Flora Association Plant Atlas, this is not a rare plant, but I'd guess you probably have to risk getting your feet wet if you hope to find it.

Here in this same swamp is a plant who's species I can't figure out, and neither has our state's chief botanist as yet.  It grows quite tall (up to a meter) on damp land, while patches of it growing in water remain much shorter.  This is what the plant looked like a couple of weeks ago.  On Thursday, it stood hip high and had sprouted flower buds in the upper leaf axils.

And lo!  A couple of those buds had opened to reveal small purple flowers that certainly resemble Veronica flowers, except that the lower petal appears to be split in two.  Strange!  Despite this anomaly, there's little doubt among the botanists I've consulted that this is a species of Veronica, possibly the non-native one called Water Veronica (Veronica anagallis-aquatica).  Or less likely, one of our native Veronicas, V. catenata.  After looking at photos of both species, I think it looks different from either.  Perhaps when it comes into fruit, that will give us another clue.

Saturday, May 30: Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, Wilton, NY
My blog posts from a year ago reminded me that the Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis) should be putting on their spectacular show right now at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park.  This preserve manages vast sections of oak/pine savanna to grow masses of this native Pea-family plant, the only larval food for the federally endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.  The vistas of thousands and thousands of blooming plants are not to be missed, as this photo I took of a meadow last year could attest.

It being a Saturday, I feared the preserve would be mobbed, but I took the chance I'd be able to maintain "social distancing" if I encountered crowds, and I headed out to the Gick Farm Parcel of the preserve.  True, the parking area was crowded, but I didn't see that many people on the trails.  What I DID see was gorgeous scenes like this one in the photo below.

I even saw two of the little blue butterflies this preserve was created to support. They were sipping nectar from blackberry blooms, for the adult butterflies can feed on any flower that offers nectar.  It is only the Karner Blue larvae that must have Lupinus perennis leaves to feed on.

Most visitors to the Lupine extravaganza would probably pass right by this patch of Tower Mustard (Turritis glabra), a native plant that thrives in the same kind of low-nutrient sandy soils that Wild Lupine also requires. I have always been impressed by the sheer verticality of this plant, with stems that shoot straight up from the ground, and even its clasping purplish leaves "reach for the sky" instead of leaning away from the stems.  And if you could see the upward-thrusting masses of seedpods, you would understand how it got its common name.

After sweating out under a sunny sky, I sought the shade of the woods and took a trail that led into a forest.  I was astounded to note how many trees had been toppled or ripped from the ground along this trail. I had heard of two tornados that passed through our area recently, and here was certain evidence that those winds were very destructive.

A happier sight was the carpet of blooming Canada Mayflower that spread across the forest floor, thousands of spikes of small white flowers filling the humid air with sweet fragrance.

And here was Pink Lady's Slipper heaven!  At every turn of the trail I found these gorgeous native orchids (Cypripedium acaule is the scientific name), each one seeming more beautiful than the last. 

And here was a triple treat!  What a great way to top off an already amazing wildflower week!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Pyramid Lake, Loved But Off-limits This Year

 For the first time since 1992, I am not spending Memorial Weekend helping to ready Pyramid Life Center for its summer season of spiritual retreats. Because of the need for social distancing during this Covid-19 pandemic, the center's director has asked all of us volunteers to remain at home this spring, while the center's staff will prepare the grounds and lodgings for what we hope may yet be some summer programs.
Pyramid Life Center is located on Pyramid Lake in Essex County, NY, a lake that is certainly one of the jewels of the Adirondacks. But this crystal-clear wilderness lake encircled by forested mountains means far more to me than just a pretty place to spend a holiday weekend. Pyramid Life Center is a spiritual retreat center to which I fled in the summer of 1991, full of anguish over the war my nation had started against Iraq, angry and sad that my fellow Americans were so excited and proud and happy to go to war. And here, at a retreat with Jesuit priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan, I found I was not alone in my feelings of alienation.
Even more than that, here I found heroes -- social workers, drug counselors, healthcare providers, advocates for the homeless and poor -- whose witness gave me the courage to choose for myself a more authentic way to live. I left a public-relations job that required me to be very nice to the very rich just because they were very rich, to learn how to care for the dying as a nursing assistant for Hospice -- a choice that eventually brought me far more joy and spiritual riches than I ever dreamed possible. So yes, my love for Pyramid Life Center runs very deep, indeed.
I am posting here three photos of Pyramid Lake. The one above, at the top of this post, was taken at dawn just as the rising sun was touching the island's trees with gold and a loon was sounding his haunting calls across the still water.  
This next one, below, was taken late in the day when the lowering sun colored the cliffs of the mountain the color of fire. Cue the loons, once more!

After working all day to clean guest rooms in the center's big lodge, I would often slip my canoe in the water after dinner and paddle around to the east side of the lake.  There, I would linger among enormous boulders that had tumbled down from the mountain above to the water's edge.  This gave me clear view of the setting sun as it sank behind the far mountains, the lake reflecting the sunset's  glory on its liquid-silver, gently rippling surface.

I also include a photo of the beautiful Wild Purple Clematis (Clematis occidentalis), a gorgeous lime-loving wildflower that I have never found elsewhere except tumbling across some marble boulders that line the entry road to Pyramid Life Center. 

I can't witness these wonders in person this year, but at least I can feast my eyes on their photographs.

I am also consoled by knowing where to find some pretty marvelous flowers much closer to home.  I abused my still-recovering hand a bit yesterday, when I hauled myself, crawling and grasping at saplings, up a steep rocky embankment because I just HAD to photograph the gorgeous Yellow Lady's Slippers I knew would be growing there.  And I was not disappointed.

There were fewer of these gorgeous native orchids than I had found last year, but at least one of them bore twin blooms.  This is not a rare occurrence for Yellow Lady's Slippers, but I always delight to find them. (Cypripedium parviflorum is this wild orchid's scientific name.)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Out of Bed, Back to the Woods

 Does this li'l pink-nosed, marshmallow-pawed cutie-pie look like a killer to you?  I sure would never have thought so, myself, until a tiny nip from his tooth found me hospitalized this past week to prevent a systemic, possibly fatal infection.

Mickey is our rambunctious 10-month old cat, and last Tuesday morning, while playing kind of rowdy with him, his sharp tooth nicked the back of my hand. The wound was tiny, but it was enough to draw a wee bit of blood. I washed my hand and thought no more of it, until late afternoon, when my hand had swelled so much I couldn't close my fingers without intense pain. Concerned, I googled "cat bites on the hand" and learned that I needed to seek medical help as soon as possible, in order to prevent a possible system-wide infection like sepsis. Apparently, cats' mouths harbor germs that are extremely infectious, and the particular anatomy of the hand allows for infections to spread rapidly through the bloodstream. Too late in the day to visit my primary doc, I went to our local Urgent Care facility, and as soon as they saw my painfully swollen hand, they sent me immediately to the hospital, where I was admitted that night. I had to receive several infusions of intravenous antibiotics, spaced far enough apart that I was kept there for two days. I'm home now, on oral antibiotics for several days more, and my hand is very close to being back to normal.

I share this sad tale to warn all my friends: do not ignore a painfully swollen hand, especially if a wound was inflicted by a cat's tooth. Even a cat as adorable as our (normally) sweet Mickey.

Although my hand is now well on the mend, I still feel a little bit wobbly from it all. But a friend's photo of some Early Coralroot Orchids (Corallorhiza trifida) blooming in a nearby wetland got me right out of my convalescent chair and off to see if I could see them for myself. (They don't call me a wildflower "nut" for no reason!) I could drive right up to the edge of this wetland, and the walk wasn't very far or strenuous before these tiny greenish orchids came into sight. A whole bunch of them, all in one clump!


In past years, these tiny orchids were found in several spots along the edge of this swamp.  But this year, my friend reported he could find none in their usual spots and had almost given up on them, when he came upon this abundant clump.  I, too, would have despaired of finding them had my friend not told me I'd find them near a big patch of Fringed Polygala (Polygaloides paucifolia).  And he was right! I did find the orchids (that's their photo, above), and I also got to enjoy one of the most extensive patches of Fringed Poygala I'd ever seen.  So pretty!

There were few other wildflowers blooming today in this wooded wetland, except for hundreds of the tiny star-shaped white flower called Goldthread (Coptis trifolia). These flowers didn't grow in massed patches like the Polygala did, but were strung out across the forest floor as constellations are across  the night sky.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Toad Orgy at Mud Pond!

I stopped by Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park yesterday, hoping to find the Susquehanna Cherry (Prunus susquehanae) in bloom on the powerline that runs along the top of the pond. This is a very low-growing native wild cherry, and sometimes I have difficulty locating it because even a big patch of it can hide among the tall grass.  But as I approached the place I remembered it growing, I was led right to it, both by its fragrance filling the air and also by the sound of dozens of buzzing bees enjoying its nectar. Yes, it was indeed in bloom! Pretty white flowers on sprawling twigs, the leaves just emerging.

But to tell the truth, I could hardly hear the bees buzzing for all the racket the American Toads were making, in the pond just down the hill. I had heard the shrill trilling of toads many times, but never so LOUD!!!   Curious, I pushed through the dogwood and honeysuckle shrubs to reach the shore of the pond, startled at almost every step by the presence of many toads underfoot. The toads, which usually hop quickly away from my footfall, seemed stunned and immobile, mesmerized, it seemed, by the thrilling sounds of love that filled the air. I had to be careful not to step on them.

But nothing prepared me for what I saw when I reached the water's edge: hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of toads, writhing and kicking and scrambling all over each other, roiling the surface of the pond for as far as I could see, all along the pond's northern shore. And the trilling was deafening!

Driven by Nature's urgent impetus, the toads were madly coupling, tripling, quadrupling, or even (as pictured here) SEXtupling!  All were scrambling to do what they were impelled to do to produce the next generation.

At least this couple seemed calmer in their coupling.  Perhaps (as his bulging throat indicated) he was whispering sweet nothings in her tympanum.

I did manage to take a video of this wild toad orgy, an event I had never witnessed before in all my life.  And I am 78 years old and grew up among ponds and swamps.

(Make sure your sound is on.  But not TOO loud!)

Flower-hunting at Lake Bonita

Here are some scenes from a walk around the mountain-top Lake Bonita last week with my pal Sue Pierce. We were searching for the beautiful Painted Trillium in the rocky hemlock woods on the lake's north-facing shore, and we were not disappointed. We continued our walk around the lake, enjoying a picnic at the lake's east end, then completing our circuit around the lake along the sun-warmed south-facing shore, where we found some interesting waterside plants.

Lake Bonita, a crystal-clear lake atop Mount McGregor, is a wonderful recent addition to Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, NY. Long off-limits to the public when it was part of a prison's property, it is now one of the most popular destinations in the park.

Sue and I started our circuit of the lake on the rocky, hemlock-shaded, north-facing shore of the lake. This is the kind of habitat the beautiful Painted Trillium prefers

True to our expectations, we found a number of Painted Trilliums (Trillium undulatum) growing under the hemlocks.

Very few wildflowers grow in a hemlock woods, but the dainty Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is one of the few that do. This native wildflower is full of surprises, since what look like white "petals" are really the sepals, while those tiny, shiny "lemon lollipops" are the true petals. The curling spindle-shaped pistils are also distinctive. Another surprise lies underground: the bright-yellow thread-like roots that suggested this flower's vernacular name.

While some hemlocks do grow on the sunnier south-facing shore of Lake Bonita, White Pines and Red Maples also thrive here on this warmer shore. And so do the lovely white-flowered Shadblow trees that lean over the water.

Lake Bonita's shore is thick with flowering shrubs.The evergreen Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) produces small bell-shaped white flowers in spring.

Another shrub that abounds on Lake Bonita's shores is the fragrant-leaved Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), which bears male and female flowers on separate shrubs. These spiky red tufts of pistils are the female flowers.

We found a large patch of these tiny white violets growing amid a sphagnum-carpeted wet area. With their wide, rather blunt-tipped leaves and their preference for damp soil, I'm guessing they are the Northern White Violet (Viola pallens). But violet taxonomy is currently in flux, so who knows?

Since my long-ago injured knee was beginning to ache, we chose to ascend a bank to a level service road that led back to our cars, rather than completing the lakeside trail that would have required somewhat more athletic scrambling and multiple ups and downs. As the sunlight filtered down through the still-translucent leaves of the surrounding forest, I couldn't stop exclaiming aloud how blessed we were to have such beautiful and accessible woods and waterways to wander.