Friday, September 11, 2020

Rare Plants Along the Hudson and Hoosic Rivers

Just a week ago, I drove over to Rensselaer County to visit Canal Park at Lock 4 of the Champlain Canal on the Hudson River. This is always a beautiful park to visit, with trails that follow the canal as well as the banks of the Hoosic River, which joins the Hudson at this location.  The lock itself is worth the trip, a place to watch both shipping barges and pleasure boats line up to pass through its gates.

But I was here to see if one of New York's rare plants had come into bloom.  And I wasn't disappointed. As I approached the junction of the Hoosic with the Hudson, I found abundant patches of Creeping Bushclover (Lespedeza repens) spilling over the low banks of the canal. I had never seen quite so many of its pretty pinky-puple flowers crowding its sprawling stems.  This plant is rated as a Rare species in the state, and has yet to be reported as blooming in Rensselaer County. A specimen has now been collected (thanks, Ruth Brooks!) and sent off to the New York Flora Association to be vouchered as present in this county.

I continued my explorations along the riverbanks, following a trail upstream along the Hoosic until I reached an alluvial plain chock full of interesting plants. One of the most interesting is this Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontia).  Its large leaves were fading now, but the flowers we'd found on these plants back in May had now yielded large clusters of shiny red berries, easily spied among all the withering greenery.

The view of the Hoosic River from some of its high shale banks is really quite beautiful.

While walking these wooded trails high on the banks, I spied these tiny cherry-red feet clasping a Lowbush Blueberry twig.  The owner of those cherry-red feet was one of the furriest caterpillars I had ever seen.  This is the caterpillar of the Apatelodes torrefacta moth.  Although it may look soft as a kitten, some of its hairs can cause a rash, so I resisted the urge to pet it.

Parts of the Hoosic River here have banks that consist of high shale cliffs, and with the water levels low enough this time of year, I could walk beneath those cliffs by treading carefully on convoluted rocks.  I'm always curious to see what plants claim this kind of territory as their preferred habitat.

Here was a plant that promptly caught my eye.  Yes, I know, it looks like just another weed, and even more so with its raggedy leaves and fading flowers.  But I recognized it as a fleabane (an Erigeron species), and possibly not just any old fleabane. With its short stature and persistent basal rosette of leaves, I wondered if it might be the VERY rare variety called Provancher's Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicum var. provancheri), a variety only recently recognized in New York, rated as an Endangered species, and reported from very few locations.  I took some very careful photos and sent them off to some folks who would know at the New York Natural Heritage Program. 

When I heard back that this little "weed" sure met the criteria for being that extra-rare native plant, I returned to the Hoosic banks today to see if I could find any more of these plants and possibly collect a specimen so the species could be vouchered as present in this county.  At first disappointed and dismayed that I could not find the one I had found last week, I then felt extraordinary relief and delight when I found just dozens of this plant's leafy rosettes plastered tightly to the steep shale.

I ultimately collected three specimens, but not because I meant to.  Since at first I could see no flower stalks, I first extracted just one small leafy rosette, but as I did so, I did happen to spy what looked like a spent flower stalk amid a second leafy rosette. And then I saw an even better flower stalk, with much of the floral material still attached, on yet a third plant. Luckily, there were dozens more where these came from.  So now I will press and dry them and send them off to the experts, hoping they will agree we've found some very rare plants at this location.

While searching for this fleabane, I also came upon abundant masses of that other rare flower that thrives in Canal Park, the pretty Creeping Bushclover, but this time along the Hoosic instead of the Hudson.  

Two rivers, two rare plants. I've always thought Canal Park was a special place.   I just didn't know until now how very special it was!

UPDATE: On Monday, 9/14, my friend Ruth Brooks came back to Canal Park with me to get a more accurate count of the Provancher's Fleabane rosettes that were sprouting out of the shale banks of the Hoosic River.  I had mentioned, oh, a couple dozen, before.  But on this day, looking more closely and working together, we stopped counting after we approached 200 plants!   And then, a bit later, we almost stepped on a specimen IN PERFECT FULL BLOOM! This was growing on shale that was closer to the water some distance upstream, and I would have missed it entirely if Ruth hadn't seen it first.  I managed to get a better photo of this one's flowers:

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