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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.