Thursday, September 10, 2020

Meadow, Sandplain, Pondshore, Creekbank!

 Meadow, sandplain, pondshore, and creekbank -- four different habitats in one morning's explorations! We are lucky to have such a variety of places to explore, all very close together. My friends Sue and Ruth and I made the most of the opportunity Tuesday morning, when we met at the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Milton, New York.

We started out in the wet meadow, just off the Northline Road parking area.  We had heard that there were orchids growing there, and we meant to find them.

And find them we did!  More than a dozen, spread out and hiding among the tall grasses of the meadow. But when a flower is as brilliantly white as the flowers of Sphinx Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva), it can't stay hidden for long.

Here's a closer look at the florets of Spiranthes incurva, with the sharply down-curving lower lips that help to distinguish this species of Ladies' Tresses from other species that might possibly occupy the same habitat during the same growing time.

Probably the most abundant occupant of the low grassy parts of this meadow was the Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia), with thousands of the pretty pinky-purple flowers sprinkled through the grass.

Here's a closer look at the freckle-faced blooms of Slender Gerardia.

A much sturdier plant, called Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), occupied a large area, raising  elaborate spore-containing cones atop handsome segmented jade-green stalks.

Peeking out from amid tall plants that lined the path were these starry-white asters.  Their relatively large size, open habit of growth, and slender, pointed bracts suggested Frostweed Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) to me, except for one thing. The stems were not as hairy as most of my guidebooks described for this species. But it didn't take long, once I posted this photo on Facebook along with my query about it, to learn that this is, indeed, the aster Symphyotrichum pilosum, but a less hairy variety called pringlei, which goes by the common name of Pringle's Aster.  A new flower for me!

Much of this meadow, which only a few years ago was filled with Joe-Pye Weed and Boneset, has now grown up to an impenetrable forest of pines and poplars.  But extensive fields of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadense) still hold their own against such encroachment.  What a glorious sweep of golden blooms!

Almost every single goldenrod stem hosted galls, either the ball-shaped stem galls or the bushy green tip galls, neither of which ever seem to cause any serious damage to their hosts.  I was struck by how truly bushy this particular tip gall was, with narrower blades that were much more crowded than the ones I typically see.

It is always a welcome surprise to encounter a big, beautiful Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) arrayed among the flower stalks. If her size and bright-yellow-and-black pattern weren't distinctive enough, that zig-zag pattern in the web would be a strong clue to her identity.

After satisfying ourselves that we had found all the treasures this meadow held, we moved along a trail that would lead us to the sandplain portion of the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve.  As we passed by a  thicket of alders on the way, this little Spring Peeper caught my eye.  At first glance I thought it was just a brownish scaly patch on the leaf, but a closer look revealed the X on the little frog's back, a feature that no doubt suggested this frog's scientific name of Pseudacris crucifer.

The sandplain portion of this preserve is very sandy, and populated only by those plants that can thrive in such low nutrient soils.  One of the cutest of those plants is called Sand Jointweed (Polygonum articulatum), its apparently leafless jointed stalks studded with tiny white flowers. In fact, there are some very small, nearly invisible green leaves that cling to the green stalks,  and that must be all it takes to photosynthesize enough nutrients in this otherwise barren, but sun-baked, seeming wasteland. At least this tiny plant doesn't have to compete with many other plants for the almost constant sunlight.

Here's a closer look at the tiny Sand Jointweed flowers, delicate little things, just vaguely touched with pink.

Scattered across the sand was another denizen of this sunny dry spot, this one with noticeable green leaves and some remarkably shaped little flowers. The arching glossy stamens are a distinctive feature of this small Mint-family plant and no doubt suggested its common name, Blue Curls.  Its scientific name is Trichostema dichotomum.

It takes some patience to find the flowers hiding among the wiry twig-like stems of Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium).  In fact, I'm not sure I have ever seen them, at least not until they have yielded the flattened green discs of their fruits, surrounded by a translucent winged membrane. 

Although the ones we found today were rather small, these plants can grow to the size of a bushel basket, the whole thing held erect on a single stalk, which will break off when the seeds are mature and allow the whole plant to go tumbling across the landscape, spreading the seeds.  This plant was originally native to the Central Plains of the U.S., but it has made itself very much at home out east in recent decades, but only in sandy, low-nutrient places very few other native plants can thrive in. A very interesting introduction to our eastern flora.

There's another very interesting organism we usually find in this sandy area, a very strange fungus called Dyemaker's False Puffball (Pisolithus tintorius). Most of the specimens we found today were already past their prime and spreading their dust-fine, cocoa-colored spores.  Having neither gills nor pores, this fungus contains tiny spore-producing orbs (peridioles) within the dung-colored membrane that contains them all when the fungus is young.  You can see those tiny orbs in this uprooted specimen, as well as its very convoluted "roots."  This fungus, when young, can produce a reddish dye that once was used to color wool.  It also is known to remove toxic chemicals from polluted soils.  You can search my blog for my other entries about this fascinating fungus.  It really is a marvel!

We next moved on to the pond that lies at the heart of the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve, intending to search its shore for a wee little flower called Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica).  I had already found it this year, rising from the damp mud very close to the water.  But this plant is so small and thin, I still had to search and search for it, even though I thought I knew exactly where it grew.  My friends are here joining the search.

We DID find it!  Was it still in bloom?  Hard to say, since its yellowish flowers never really protrude beyond its green sepals.  But I think I see green seeds protruding, so that would indicate the flowers are now producing their fruit.

As we moved around the pond to explore more of the shore, I was excited to find a large patch of Slender Three-seeded Mercury (Acalypha gracilens).  Its more common cousin, the standard Three-seeded Mercury (A. rhomboidea), grows in just about every vacant lot and sidewalk crack, but this species is much less common.  In this photo, you can see the winged bracts that envelop the three-seeded flowers. These bracts resemble the wings on the heels of the Roman god Mercury, hence the origin of the common name.

Three-seeded Mercury is in the Spurge Family, so we were not that surprised to find a couple of other spurges growing nearby.  This Spotted Spurge (Euphorbia maculatum) is a common "weed" (although a native one) of sidewalk cracks and hard-packed dirt, but I can't remember ever seeing it in such glorious bloom. You really need a magnifier to appreciate its itty-bitty little flowers, though.

The flowers of Upright Spurge (Euphorbia nutans), another native plant,  are a little more visible to the naked eye.  For one thing, its more upright stems lift it closer to our eyes, while the apple-red "pods" that form part of the inflorescence are actually quite attractive. Sadly, most spurges get little respect and are often dismissed as common "weeds." I think people just need to look a little closer.

By this time, we were getting hot from this very humid day, and we envied these turtles' access to the cool water of the pond.  We were also getting hungry and decided to head over to the Burl Trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek just down the road from Woods Hollow. There, we would sit under the shade of a Box Elder Tree and enjoy our picnic lunches.

Our energies restored, I urged my friends to do just a bit more exploring today, walking a portion of the Burl Trail along the rushing waters of the Kayaderosseras Creek, just a mile or so down the road.  There's a Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) I found in bloom on this creekbank last week, an Endangered species that just showed up here about three years ago, and I wanted to show it to my friends.  But our footsteps were halted when we came upon this Giant Puffball along the path. It's hard to believe how this much fungal tissue can explode out of the ground just overnight!

But this particular trail is known for its gigantic occupants.  Here is one of the smaller plants of Giant Ragweed, a native plant that thrives here in great numbers and with many specimens growing to truly prodigious size.

Sadly, though, gigantic populations of Japanese Knotweed thrive here as well.  How amazing it is, then, that such a fragile-seeming native annual wildflower as Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) can shove that knotweed aside to make room for its own blooms.

In some ways, then, it makes perfect sense that Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) would find a home here, on this creekbank occupied by so many other gigantic plants.  Although its flowers were starting to fade already, we were able to spy a few of its rosy-purple flowers protruding from among a thick stand of Tall Goldenrods.

The pointed bracts on the involucres of Tall Ironweed's flowers (Vernonia gigantea)

I was so glad to be able to examine these Tall Ironweed flowers up close and show my friends the pointed bracts surrounding the clusters of florets.  When I first found this ironweed here back in 2017, I mistakenly identified it as New York Ironweed, believing the long points on the bracts to be more appropriate to that species. (Especially since Newcomb's Wildflower Guide described Tall Ironweed's bracts as "blunt or short-pointed.")

It was only later, when I had occasion to examine a known specimen of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), that I realized my mistake.  The bracts on this species are not just sharp-pointed, but the points progress into long thready extensions, creating an involucre distinctly different from those I had seen on the ironweed along the Kayaderosseras Creek.  No matter how long the points on that  ironweed's bracts had appeared to me, they certainly didn't look as long as these!

The long thready bracts on the involucre of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

The clincher turned out to be the number of florets in each flower bundle. According to Newcomb, New York Ironweed's bundles contain between 30 and 50, while the Tall species has bundles that contain between 13 and 30. I took a flower bundle apart and arrayed the florets to count them: 22 in all. So the ironweed that grows along the Burl Trail turned out to be V. gigantea after all!

Now I have to go back to my 2017 blog post in which I reported first discovering ironweed along this trail. If my mistake remains in that post, it's time to correct the error!

1 comment:

The Furry Gnome said...

What a wlonderful group of fascinating plants!