Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Virtual Nature Walk on the Hudson River Ice Meadows

Oh gosh, it's JUNE already! And if this summer had gone as planned, I'd be leading a walk on the Hudson River Ice Meadows this coming Saturday, an outing sponsored by the New York Flora Association. But nope, all outings have been canceled this summer, for the sake of keeping us safe from Covid-19.  But that doesn't mean I couldn't explore this botanically rich site by myself, or even with a couple of "socially distancing" pals, my fellow wildflower enthusiasts Sue Pierce and Evelyn Greene.  The three of us masked up and ventured there together on Tuesday, and I've designed this blog post to serve as a kind of virtual nature walk to be shared with those who might have signed up to participate but couldn't.

We met at the Hudson River Recreation Area on Golf Course Road, just a few miles north of Warrensburg. To reach the banks of the Hudson, we first followed a trail through a pine woods that is carpeted with masses of blooming Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).  Even though the morning was chilly, these myriad blooms scented the cool air with their sweet fragrance.

Everywhere we looked, on either side of the trail, we could see dozens of Pink Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium acaule) studding the Mayflower carpets with their large and beautiful blooms.

Yellow-flowered Clintonia (Clintonia borealis) was abundant here, too, dangling its lily-shaped flowers above masses of dark-green, red-berried Partridgeberry plants (Mitchella repens).

The woodland trail that leads through tall pines was lined with many shorter understory trees and shrubs.  One of those understory trees was Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum), notable for its spikes of yellowish flowers that protruded above the leaves.

We came out of the woods to descend to this cobbled shore of the Hudson, kept open and free of tall woody plants by huge deposits of a special kind of turbulence-formed ice, called frazil, that heaps up along these banks most winters.  Many years, the frazil is so deep it doesn't completely melt away until late spring, creating a quasi-boreal habitat that suppresses most invasive species and supports an enormous variety of native plants, some of them extremely rare.  The impact of this frazil ice along these shores is what suggested the name Ice Meadows for a two-sided stretch of riverbank here about eight miles long.

One of the first plants we encounter here is not a rare one, but it is an interesting one. And quite a pretty thing, I believe, when its early shoots are decorated with curling tendrils arrayed along its yet-erect purple vining stem.  This plant is called Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea), and when in bloom, it certainly does live up to its suggestive common name.

We had an opportunity to experience that dead-animal smell today, because several of the Carrion Flower plants were in full bloom.  Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, with both plants equally stinky when in bloom.  These orb-shaped flower clusters are the anther-laden males.

Not far away were Carrion Flower plants that bear exclusively the pistillate female flowers that will yield beautiful (non-stinky) orbs of blue-black berries later in summer. Both male and female plants attract carrion-eating flies, which of course contributes to successful pollination.

Here's another greenish-flowered plant that thrives on these shores, and thankfully its flowers do not stink.  In fact, I have never detected any scent at all from Maryland Snakeroot (Sanicula marilandica).

These tall white flowers exploding with myriad anthers are called Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana), so called because of the thimble shape the seedpod achieves later on.

This bright-yellow flower (Crocanthemum canadense) also has a descriptive common name, although you have to wait until a clear, cold, windless morning in autumn to witness how it came to be called Frostweed. That's when its stems crack open to allow its sap to seep out and turn into curls of frothy ice in the sub-freezing air. This time of year we can enjoy its yellow blooms decorated with floppy orange-tipped anthers.

Many of us are familiar with the creeping yellow-flowered sprawling plants called Cinquefoil, but out here on the Ice Meadows, we often find the species called Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis).  The flower is not that much smaller than that of Common Cinquefoil, but the leaves are distinguished by being toothed only from the center out.

Here is a closer photo of the distinctive leaves of Dwarf Cinquefoil.

Speaking of leaves, the leaves of Canadian Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) are all we will see of this tall white-flowered plant until later in summer, but even now they are remarkably attractive.  And when they undergo a process called "guttation," they are stunningly beautiful, each leaf serration tipped with a drop of crystal-clear water as the plant releases excess moisture through the tips of these serrations.

Again, we pay particular attention to the leaves of this plant, for those narrow, lance-shaped leaves are what distinguish this white-flowered violet as the species called Lance-leaved Violet (Viola lanceolata).

Once again we notice the leaves of this white violet, battered by spring flooding though they may be. If some violet experts hadn't helped me identify this plant as the Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia) some years ago, when the whole plant was more robust and laden with intact leaves, I doubt I would have known it was the same plant when I found it today.  This is quite a rare violet in New York State, ranked as a Threatened species and previously known to exist only in locations far from this one.  Unfortunately, its preferred habitat seems to be out in the cobble next to the river's rushing water.  I sure hope it can revive some vigor over the summer, the better to resist the torrents that will surely abuse it again next spring.

Here's another rare plant that prefers the exposed cobble along these shores, and although Dwarf Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa) is classified as a Threatened species in New York, it doesn't seem to be seriously threatened by the spring flooding that occasionally rips it up from its roots.  If anything, this low-growing, sprawling woody plant seems to rebound with extra vigor after it's pounded by flooding.  I missed the full flowering that fills the air with fragrance each spring, for most of the many plants I found had already shed their flowers and were starting to fruit.  But here and there I found a few flowering boughs.

All the shoreline plants I've discussed so far make their home in the grassy or naked cobble just downstream from the area we explored next, a stretch of riverbank made remarkable by extensive outcroppings of pure marble. This pale, almost glassy rock is punctuated with streaks of black magma that resembles streams of hot fudge poured over vanilla ice cream. Since marble is metamorphosed limestone, the geology here supports the growth of many lime-loving plants.

Although Tall Cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta) is often found on calcareous alvar habitats, I don't believe it particularly craves lime.   But it does prefer a rocky substrate, exactly the kind of terrain out here on this particular Hudson shore. I once described this species as resembling "a strawberry plant on steroids!"

Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) is said to prefer dry, thin soils at the edge of the woods, and that's exactly where you can find extensive patches of this plant that is topped with clusters of star-shaped white blooms. It grows high up on the rocky bank, extending back into the woods for a short distance.

Here's another flower that seems to prefer the edges of forested rock outcrops, often in calcareous soils.  The brilliant red of Columbine's flowers (Aquilegia canadensis) make it hard to miss even when it ventures back into deep shade.

While the previous three plants like it high and dry up at the rocky edge of the woods, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) wants to be closer to the water, where the soil is damper.  This Parsley Family plant can often be found thriving in full sun, although it can also tolerate part shade.

According to the New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas, Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) "does best on edges of forests in rocky, dry-mesic rich soils." That would be a very good description  of the habitat here, where marble outcroppings reach all the way into the woods that edge the rocky riverbanks. And this pretty native wildflower certainly seems to be doing well here, considering how abundantly it blooms.

There are lots of low-growing blueberry bushes in the pine woods along the Hudson here, but these Hillside Blueberries (Vaccinium pallidum) that abound where the woods meets the rocky shore have the prettiest flowers of all. Most low-bush blueberries bear short bell-shaped flowers that are mostly white or vaguely tinged with pink, but the Hillside Blueberry flowers are longer, of a butter-yellow color tinged with deep rose, and emerging from bracts colored the loveliest aqua. Very pretty!

If we walk the entire length of this marble shore until shoreline boulders prevent further passage without wading out into the river, we will pass through a dry sandy area that is mostly free of plants.  Yet this is the only spot along this shore where I can find Starry Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum stellatum). I find this a little surprising, since the NYFA Plant Atlas indicates that this species "perhaps prefers . . . deep-rich wet soils."  But the atlas also adds that the preferred soil can be "seasonally wet," which this soil certainly is during spring floods or periods of high water. I am sorry we missed the lovely little star-shaped white flowers, but the bluish-green leaves arranged so rhythmically along the stems are also quite beautiful.  And so are the striped brown-and-gold fruits that come later, flattened orbs that resemble butterscotch hard-candies.

Returning back to where we started, we pass an extensive patch of Bearberry leaves (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) spreading among the rocks midway up the bank. I was surprised to see how extensively this patch of Bearberry has expanded this year, considering that raging floodwaters had uprooted so much of it a year ago.  I guess those floodwaters just deposited rooted portions that reestablished themselves along the banks.  Only once have I found this plant's pretty little pink-tipped white flowers, and that was when I visited here much earlier in spring.

Just as we leave the marble-paved shore, I stop to search among the mosses that cover a rocky ledge, for here is where I have always found a patch of Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris). Despite the common name and its mossy resemblance, this spiky evergreen growth is more closely related to ferns than it is to moss. If you click on this photo, you might detect some tiny yellow orbs nestled within the leaves.  These are one of the two types of spore cones this species of Selaginella is known to produce.

Before we returned to our cars, I was hoping to find just one more plant, a sedge called Whip Nut Rush (Scleria triglomerata) that is rated as Endangered in New York but which grows abundantly out here on this east bank of the Hudson.  A green and grassy plant, it hides easily among all the other grasses and sedges, and I was having a darned hard time locating it.  But I had described it to my eagle-eyed pal Sue as having a three-cornered stem with a kind of bushy growth sticking out of the stem about two-thirds of the way up, and wouldn't you know?  She spotted it right away!  Later in summer, it will produce tiny round seeds that are visible, first green, then pearly white, and finally black.

Earlier, down by the water, I had found another sedge, this one with lime-green spikelets dotted with brown.  Its color resembled that of the rare Buxbaum's Sedge, but I thought the heads were too long and narrow to be that species, one that is rated as Threatened in New York.  Now, if this had been an actual NYFA nature walk, with a sedge expert like David Werier along, he probably would have ID'd it for us right away.  Maybe he (or someone equally knowledgeable) will weigh in here to name it for us in the comments.

UPDATE: Some friends who really knows their sedges have suggested this could be the one called Twisted Sedge (Carex torta) .  Or possibly Smooth Black Sedge  (Carex nigra). Or possibly some other member of the Phacosystis group of sedges that prefer wetland habitat.  Sedges can be really hard to pin down to a species, especially from just one photograph.

Off to the west-bank Ice Meadows

One of the canceled NYFA outings this summer is another walk I was scheduled to lead to the opposite shore of the Ice Meadows, that one on July 12, when many rare and beautiful plants should be blooming along the west bank.  I will try once again to simulate that walk with a blog post when that time arrives,  but my friends and I visited the west bank this past Tuesday as well.  There's a super-rare violet I found there in bloom last year on this same date, and I wanted to see if I could find it again.  And once again, thanks to my pal Sue's super eyesight and diligence, I did find it again.  This photo below shows Sue standing on the west bank of the Ice Meadows.

A distinctive feature of this west-bank site is the presence of many spring-fed pools, and it was along one of these pools that I did find the Threatened species called Buxbaum's Sedge (Carex buxbaumii). Note how much chubbier the heads are compared with the similarly colored but skinnier sedge I found on the opposite shore.

Regarding that super-rare violet, the New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae), I confess that I could not find it again at the place where I was sure I had found it last year.  I had described it to Sue, and while I was futilely searching the old spot, Sue was searching a different area, an area that she was sure was where I had found it before. She had been with me on that date, too.  And I guess her memory, like her eyesight, is much, much better than mine.  After she hollered at me to come look, I reluctantly left the site I was searching to go see what she was hollering about.  And there it was!  Or rather, there THEY were, plant after plant, tucked into the cracks of a boulder! Something worth hollering about, that's for sure!  There is no other place in all of New York that this violet has been found, and Sue knew where to find it.

Unfortunately, this violet was no longer in bloom, its petals dropped and its fruits already forming.  So how did we recognize the New England Violet without its vividly colored and distinctly hairy blooms?  Well, no other violet that we have ever seen has had heart-shaped leaves this long and tapered, along with stems this thickly covered with erect hairs.  Of course, I took many careful photos of all aspects of the plants, which I shared with our state's chief botanist Steve Young, who promptly confirmed our guess.  Yay!


Bill and dogs said...

Again a wonderful post. Thank you!

Uta said...

What a wonderful trip you showed, enjoyed it very much. As a Master Gardener I always like to learn more.

Momo said...

Thank you for this marvelous virtual tour!!!!! So many unusual plants and blooms to witness!

suep said...

Always a good time walking with you & Evelyn ! -- my photos of the day will be on FB later, is it
OK if I add a link to this fantastic blog entry -- you have provided great descriptions & facts (as usual)

Anonymous said...

Delightful post. Thank you. You have been most helpful with your plant descriptions .

The Furry Gnome said...

A lot of species there that I don't recognize! A very unique habitat.

Ron Gamble said...

Nice post! I'll be sure to watch for the virtual tour you mention coming next month. Ron G.