Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Fifty Years in Fabulous Saratoga, a "City in the Country"!

Scott House, a former Skidmore College dorm, was our first home in Saratoga Springs.

On August 28, 1970, almost exactly 50 years ago, we arrived in Saratoga Springs -- my husband, myself, and three young children, including a baby born just 10 days before. The long drive from our former home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had been exhausting, but our new home (a 13-bedroom former Skidmore dorm repurposed as faculty housing) lay just a few blocks away. What a magnificent home it was! A genuine mansion, and we were granted the privilege of living there for a year, for the princely rent of $100 a month. We couldn't wait to get there!  

 Ah, but we had not planned on having to pass by the famous Saratoga Race Track, just as massive crowds were leaving after the final race of the annual meet. With something like 20,000 track-goers leaving at once, it took more than half an hour to travel the next three blocks to our new front door.  But finally, home at last!  Well . . . sorta.  I won't go into detail about some of the difficulties that lay in wait -- no stove, no washer and dryer, no friends or family to help me cope while my husband took up his new job teaching physics at Skidmore College -- except to say that I was not exactly a happy camper. All I wanted to do was run home to Michigan.


But that was 50 years ago.  Now, if you asked me if I'd rather return to Michigan, I'd say, "Are you kidding?" I am now retired and free to pursue my passion for nature, after spending the past 30-plus years exploring the kind of wild natural areas I'd never have found where I'd lived in southern Michigan before moving to New York. Where I grew up, all the nearby lakes were roiled by powerboats, the rivers employed as sewers for factory wastes, the forests long felled and converted to farmland, the marshes drained to raise crops for big supermarket chains. But here, right here in the burgeoning city of Saratoga Springs, where population pressures constantly challenge the natural environment, I'm surrounded by woodlands and wetlands allowed to be just that: woodlands and wetlands as close as they can be to their natural states, supporting the native flora and fauna that have always called these woodlands and wetlands their home.  We are truly a “city in the country.”And it's thanks to organizations like Sustainable Saratoga and their efforts to preserve a "Greenbelt" -- regions of protected natural areas surrounding the urban core of the city -- that I and others should be able to explore and enjoy these natural areas for generations to come.

Here are just four of the many natural areas that lie within this Saratoga Greenbelt, featuring just a sampling of some of the remarkable flora and fauna that call these areas their home.

The Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail

The Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, which lies within the city limits of Saratoga Springs, runs for about 2 miles along an old railroad bed.  More forested wetland and open marsh than actual bog, this trail is home to a marvelous variety of native wildflowers and woody plants, most of which prefer a habitat that is wetter than not. The combination of available water and fruit- and seed-bearing shrubs and vines attracts vast numbers of birds, which in turn attract as many birders as botanists to this verdant trail, in all seasons.

I don't even wait for the snow to melt before I head out to Bog Meadow to search for the first true flower of spring, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  This amazing plant actually creates its own heat by a chemical process, enough heat to actually melt the snow that surrounds its curvaceous Morocco-red spathes enclosing the flower-bearing spadix within.  This warmth, as well as the flowers' "skunky" odor, attract early pollinators to come feed on the tiny yellow flowers within.  You can just glimpse a few of them here, revealed by the opening in the spathe.

 Just a few weeks after the Skunk Cabbage comes into bloom, the surrounding wetlands explode into vivid gold, as masses of Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) open their big beautiful flowers.

As spring progresses, Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) begins to dangle its pristine white blooms below its broad spreading leaves. It takes some diligent searching to discover these beautiful flowers, for not only are the flowers well hidden beneath the leaves, the entire plant takes shelter beneath the abundant shrubs that line the trail.

Chances are, you might detect the exquisite fragrance of Early Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) before you see its gorgeous rosy-pink flowers, which are covering the boughs of the shrubs well off the trail in the woods.

Orchids grow here, too.  But they're kind of fickle, when it comes to blooming each year.  I found this abundant patch of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) blooming for a couple of years, but now I can't even find a basal rosette of its leaves at this site.  But across the trail and back further in the woods, a whole new patch has sprung up where none grew before.  That's orchids, for ya! By the way, Goodyera pubescens is only one of around 60 orchid species that are native to New York.

Late in the summer, the Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum) opens its rosy-purple blooms, attracting such gorgeous visitors as this Giant Swallowtail Butterfly to come feast on its nectar. Towering on stems over six feet high, these brilliantly colored blooms can be sighted from quite a distance away, even in the deep shade of its swamp habitat.

The North Woods at Skidmore College

The same geological fault that delivers the various mineral waters to Saratoga's famous springs also delivered a limestone substrate to the approximately 150 acres of forest that abuts the northern edge of the Skidmore College campus. This rich soil supports an amazing diversity of calciphile (lime-loving) spring wildflowers, including some so rare they are found nowhere else in Saratoga County.  Botanists from around the region are attracted to this forest each spring, not only to seek out those botanical rarities, but also to delight in the display of vast numbers of Large-flowered White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) carpeting the forest floor.

One of the earliest flowers to bloom in the spring is the Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), which can be found here in a gorgeous range of colors, from purest white through palest lilac to deepest purple.  Even while most of the forest floor remains covered with dull dead leaves, clusters of Hepaticas startle the eye with flowers that seem to glow as if lit from within.

Equally gorgeous are the fragile blooms of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), pure white and centered with bright-yellow sunbursts of anthers. You almost have to make an appointment to witness their beauty, so brief is their blooming time.  But then they produce the most elegant seedpods, jade-green spindle-shaped pods atop graceful slender stems.

As a warming sun is coaxing these early-spring wildflowers to hurry and bloom before the tree canopy closes in and steals the light, so does the Mourning Cloak Butterfly wake from its winter sleep and start to flutter about the woods, feeding on tree sap even before many flowers are open to offer their nectar. Sometimes I am lucky enough to capture its portrait as it spreads its brown-velvet wings to soak up the energy-granting rays of the sun.

One of the rarest flowers to bloom in this woods is Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), reported to grow nowhere else in the county.  It is hardly a showy plant, not even bothering to produce any petals.  Those clusters of yellow-tipped anthers are all this plant needs to produce a cluster of bright-red berries later in the summer.

The rich soils of the Skidmore woods are exactly what the beautiful Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) requires.  But even while this particular woods provides that requirement abundantly, this native orchid seems to bloom less profusely here as the years go by.  I suspect that poachers may share some responsibility for reducing its numbers along the footpaths, but luckily, I still find a few each year in areas that are more difficult to access.

As the spring merges into summer and shade deepens in the woods, I begin to search for one of the very few milkweeds that bloom in the shade, the dainty Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia). What a lovely flower it is, white star-shaped blooms that are touched with pink, held aloft on swaying stems above dark-green leaves.  I have found this plant in very few other locations, every one of which was known for its lime-enriched soils.

The season for woodland wildflowers is brief, with most forest-dwellers disappearing after the trees leaf out to cast the forest floor into deep shade.  As the summer progresses, the wildflower seeker looks more to open areas for interesting finds.  One of the most interesting open-area plants at Skidmore is the Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum), which grows within a powerline clearcut that traverses the campus.  The tiny red trumpet-shaped flowers that grow in the axils are pretty enough, but the plant really becomes spectacular in the fall, when the small orange fruits wreathe the stems. 

The Spring Run Trail

One of the most popular Saratoga nature trails is right in town, a mile-long stretch that starts near the Quality Hardware store on Excelsior Avenue and ends just before it abuts Interstate 87. Paved so that bikers and baby carriages can have smooth going, it is also plowed in the winter, making it a year-round destination for walkers and runners.  A wonderful addition to this trail is a boardwalk that crosses a marsh near its terminus, constructed by John Witt, the developer of a residential/hotel complex nearby, who donated it to the city.

Because this trail follows an old railroad right-of-way bordered by seriously disturbed soils, non-native invasive species like Japanese Knotweed, Asian Honeysuckle, and Purple Loosestrife tend to dominate the trailside. But many of our sturdier native species still soldier on.  Here, an abundant stand of Spotted Joe-PyeWeed (Eutrochium maculatum) asserts its rightful place in the swamp. The surrounding cattails and jewelweed, native species both, also maintain their foothold against the invaders pressing in on every side.

There is one non-native wildflower that I am always delighted to see along here, and that is the brilliant-yellow sunburst of  Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) -- the first flower of spring that actually looks like a flower! Sure, it can be invasive at times, but the bees and other bugs are sure happy to find its abundant pollen while our native floral offerings remain exceedingly scarce. And it often grows abundantly in nutrient-poor "waste places" where few other flowers would thrive. And one of the earliest spots I have found it in bloom is along this Spring Run Trail. And just when I needed some sure sign that spring would actually come.

We do have a few native wildflowers that claim this trailside as their home, and Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is surely one of the most gorgeous.  I know of few other wildflowers so radiantly blue.  A  large patch of these tall multi-flowered plants crowds the banks of the Spring Run Creek near one of the bridges that spans it. 

Here's another of our most gorgeous native wildflowers, the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), whose vivid purple blooms distinguish this species from all the other asters that share its creekside habitat each fall.

A trail that is lined with forest and swamp and which has a pretty creek rushing along beside it is sure to attract many birds.  Just ask members of our local chapter of the Audubon Society, who conduct many birding walks along this trail.  This is the first place I go each spring to hear the loud conk-a-reee! of the Red-winged Blackbirds, or to witness a Cooper's Hawk surveying the swamp high atop a huge White Pine.  And this is where my nephew Tim Donnelly came early one morning to capture this portrait of a Solitary Sandpiper seeming to admire its own reflection in the stream.

Photo by Tim Donnelly

Saratoga Spa State Park

Saratoga Spa State Park is probably not a foremost destination for nature nuts.   This park is best known for its golf courses, swimming pools, mineral baths, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, not for any wilderness that might exist within it.  But there is some.  Not true wilderness, of course, but certainly there are areas within the park where wild things grow.  And that's where I head when I need a quick nature fix, since this park is very close to my home. 

My favorite area in the park is called the Ferndell Ravine.  And a steep and lovely ravine it is, surmounted and scented by gigantic pines, with a tiny brook rippling beside the trail as it descends through deep-green woods and past banks that are covered with mosses.  It offers only a brief passage between a busy park road and a picnic area noisy with family clamorings, but sometimes that's all the dose of quiet nature I need for the moment. And this ravine is as lovely when deep in winter's snow as it is on a high-summer day.

Our native viburnum shrub called Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is seldom found this far south, preferring the colder forests to the north. But here in this deep-shaded, water-cooled ravine I find it every spring, its bright-white flower clusters seeming to glow from the dark of the woods.

Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) also thrive in the spring-watered swales along the brook.  Its green flowers may be hard to discern in the spring without getting mud on your feet, but later, in the fall, its berry clusters are so brilliantly red they can't be missed, even from mid-trail.

Emerging onto the road that passes the picnic area, I often stop to admire some Gray Dogwood shrubs (Cornus racemosa), with porcelain-white berries held on scarlet pedicels.

In the winter, I often continue my walk along the rushing waters of Geyser Creek, where a trail leads me past a so-called "geyser" spouting mineral water high above its accumulated dome of mineral deposits. This "geyser"  should more accurately be called a "spouter," since its energy is produced by the buildup of  cold gasses instead of the heat that propels a genuine geyser.

The trail along Geyser Creek eventually ends at a staircase that ascends to this small stone structure housing the  Orenda Spring.  Although it appears to be blood red, the iron-rich water spilling from the spigot is actually crystal clear.  It is the iron in the mineral deposits that turns this color as it oxidizes.     
Orenda is an Iroquois word meaning a divine force believed to be the source of all positive human accomplishment.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the peoples of the world could be so transformed by drinking the waters of this spring?  One could only hope!

It's September now, and as the days grow short, the grass grows pink.  Pink Love Grass does, anyway.  Patches of this lovely gossamer grass (its scientific name is Eragrostis spectabilis) drift across open areas in the park (as well as along many roadsides now). I always think of this spectacular display as Mother Nature's compensation for summer nearing its end.

Another compensation for summer ending is the profusion of mushrooms that often sprout in autumn.  One of the best places I've ever found for beautiful fungi is a section of Saratoga Spa State Park that really IS rather wild and woodsy.  This section is called the Hemlock Trail, accessed off of Crescent Avenue and quite a bit east of the main area of the park.  This is a series of well-marked trails through mixed hardwoods and conifers, over little brooks and passing through several clearings shaded by towering Black Walnuts, and eventually leading to an area of forest dominated by old-growth trees.  It was along this trail that I found the most beautiful mushroom I have ever seen in my life, the American Caesar (Amanita jacksonii), shown here in its button stage, just emerging from its cup-like structure called a volva.

I found these tiny rose-colored mushrooms in this same woods, but I neglected to consult my guidebook to learn their name, distracted as I was by this pretty little American Toad, whose rosy spots echoed the color of the fungi.

There!  Isn't it amazing how much wild nature lies all around our fair city?  And this report is simply a sampling, of four preserves only, that lie within Saratoga's Greenbelt. There are many more natural areas within the Greenbelt, and far more others beyond the city limits of Saratoga Springs, places like Moreau Lake State Park or Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa, or the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, or the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park.  I could go on and on, moving farther afield, describing secret bogs near Lake George, or true wilderness lakes in the Adirondacks. I have described most of those places before, as regular readers of this blog know very well.  This particular post was meant to thank the organization Sustainable Saratoga for seeking to protect these areas closest to my home.  Even though I've only touched on some of the many treasures to be found in these areas, I hope that I've made it obvious how much there is to protect.

To learn more about Sustainable Saratoga and this organization's efforts to advance sustainable practices and protect our environment for current and future generations, here's the link to their very informative website:


suep said...

What a wonderful tour of these natural areas right in Saratoga Springs ! Folks should know that your beautiful photos and descriptions only begin to scratch the surface of what can be found on a stroll in any of these places.
And credit should be given to those people who help create, donate, preserve, protect and maintain these areas. Many would have been lost to development if not for the foresight and generosity of the people of Saratoga. And it is an ongoing process, as well; let us not take things for granted, but stay active in our advocacy and stewardship.

Karen Pick said...

Wonderful post. Thank you so much.

Bill and dogs said...

An exceptionally beautiful post. Thank you!

R.D Francis said...

Great read. I love finding these corners of the web that opens my eyes to another part of the world. BTW: Chuck the Writer's weekly blog "What's Up in the Neighborhood" brought me here.

Best of health and happiness.

Momo said...

I love seeing these posts again and again. They serve as a great reference, too (as I just got home from Sherman Island area where the blooms are lovely now, as you know).

greentangle said...

Thanks for the lovely town tour! You remind me that I know more plants than I think I do.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for highlighting the natural beauty that surrounds us every day. Our forests and wetlands are so important.

virginiabt28 said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. No wonder you were skeptical when you arrived not knowing anyone and with a newborn?! Your descriptions and photos are gorgeous. A yellow lady's slipper - wow! All of these areas are so familiar. I liked your occasional getaway to the Spa when a quick fix will do. As you said, it's not wilderness, but I love it there in any season.