Friday, January 29, 2021

Midwinter Choices

So here it was at last: that quintessential January day in Saratoga Springs: Fresh snow, bright sun, and a sky of almost unimaginable blue!   When I stepped out to get the newspapers this morning, I gasped -- at the beauty and clarity of the day, yes, but also because the air was so cold I could hardly breath it in.   The thermometer read about 5 above zero, which some years ago I would have considered rather balmy for a winter day.  But that was before the chronic ailment called COPD had stiffened my lungs, especially when my lungs fill with frigid air.  Sadly, it was too cold for me to go outdoor adventuring today.

Happily, even though the day had been cloudy, the air had been warmer two days before, a day of soft fresh snow that enticed me out for a walk at Saratoga Spa State Park, just a mile or so from my home.

By the time I reached the park in the early afternoon, the snow still clung to every branch and twig of the these towering White Pines that line one of the park's plowed trails.

Spa Park has several miles of plowed paths, which offer easy walking even as the snow grows deeper everywhere else.  This was perfect for my desire this day, which was for a good brisk walk, but not a slog on snowshoes.  The path pictured here parallels the road called the Avenue of Pines.

The same path curves around the edge of the golf course, the wide meadows of the course criss-crossed on this snowy day by the tracks of many Nordic skiers.

As I walk beneath a stand of Red Pines, I notice a feature of this species that allows me to identify it from a distance.  As this species of pine grows tall, it sheds its lower branches, leaving dark scars on the reddish bark where the branches once grew.  These scars cause the trunk to appear to be decorated with polka dots!

Some of the younger Red Pines still have branches that hang low. This would have allowed me to examine how its sturdy stiff needles are arranged in bundles of two, if the needle clusters had not been piled with snow today.

Raising my eyes, I noticed these catkin-tipped slender branches dark against the white sky, and I thought it looked like a beautiful ink drawing.  I also surmised that those catkins most likely belonged to a species of birch.

And so they did!  A Yellow Birch, to be exact.  This species was suggested, first, by the tight curls of rather glossy bark of a faintly yellowish cast, and then confirmed when I chewed on a tender twig and tasted the tell-tale flavor of pepsin.  Black Birch twigs also taste of pepsin, but the bark of that species looks quite different: very dark and separating from the trunk in thick plates, not thin curls like these.

There's a wide-open low-lying spot in the park where a speed-skating oval had once been created but which now has reverted to a cattail marsh -- or rather, a battleground where native cattails and invasive Phragmites canes struggle for dominance. Having observed this battle for more than 20 years, I believe the cattails are gaining an edge on the Phragmites.  I was struck today by the way the cattails appear to  have been battered by what looks to be swirling winds, since the stalks were bent in several different directions.  Even on this still day, the swirling cattail stalks conveyed a sense of dynamic movement, as if battalions of cattails were assaulting the patch of Phragmites that remains in this patch of the marsh.

As I continued my walk, I soon heard joyous shrieks and laughter from children happily sledding down one of the few hills that occur in this part of the park. What fun they were having! 

As I stood watching this fun-filled activity, I was struck not only by the sounds of their delight, but also by the vivid colors of their clothing and their sleds.  How monochromatic the day had seemed until I happened upon this sledding scene! Until now, the most colorful item I'd happened upon was an only mildly vivid patch of lichens covering a snow-capped tree limb.

And then, just as I was returning to my parked car, this colorful orb caught my eye.  It appears that somebody hung a Christmas ornament from a twig along the path.  Normally, I would resent such a gaudy intrusion into a natural area, but today it seemed like a happy sign. And also an invitation: come on outdoors and have some fun!  (Which I will again, when it warms up enough for me to breathe.)

Friday, January 22, 2021

Winter Walk, Gray Day

One gray day after another.  Sigh!  What happened to our Januaries of deep blue skies and sparkling snow? We did have one bright sunny day this past week, on Wednesday, but I was glued to my TV that day, excited to join the celebration welcoming President Biden.   I did get out for a walk at Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park yesterday, even though the low clouds and dim light were not really very inviting.  At least the pond was frozen enough that I could walk on the ice, where the snow was not deep, keeping close to the shore.

There were many animal tracks criss-crossing the frozen pond, but all were too distorted by melting and blown snow for me to accurately identify any for certain. By the size of the foot and the length of the stride, though, I would guess that this particular trail was made by a fox, either red or gray. (My own snowshoe tracks are evident here as well. Even though the snow on the pond was not deep, I chose to wear snowshoes to spread my weight more evenly, lessening my chances of breaking through the ice.)

I was disappointed that the tracking was so obscured, since finding wild animal sign is one of my  favorite winter amusements. But at least I did come across this obvious den in the steep bank. Again, I couldn't distinguish the paw prints well, but my guess would be a fox's home. It seemed too  high up on the bank to be a beaver's, since I think of beavers as preferring to enter the water directly from their pondside dens.  There are many beaver dens at the water's edge around Mud Pond, as well as a large lodge out in the water.

Many wildflower signs remained on this bank as well.  I'm thinking that these dried puffs are what's left of the globular flowers of Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), especially since the numerous petal-like bracts are so persistent. Another clue was the persistence of the very narrow lance-like leaves, arranged alternatively along the stem. (You can see the entire plant in the lower right corner of the photo above.)

Here was another interesting wildflower relic, a split-open Common Milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca), the seeds long gone but the husk of the pod assuming the shape of a heart.

While the previous two photos are of the remains of plants long spent, this next photo is of a bud containing both the leaves and the flowers of a Sweet Viburnum shrub (Viburnum lentago) that has yet to bloom. That long-billed stork-head shape is diagnostic for buds of this viburnum.

I had now reached a section of shoreline where a creek enters the pond and has formed a muddy broad delta, frozen now, but the wetland habitat was made obvious by the remains of a number of wetland plant species.  Some of these plants looked quite striking against the pure-white background of the snow.

I'm not sure exactly which species this is, although I have always called it a bulrush.  The explosion of star-shaped bracts at the ends of arching stems always reminds me of fireworks.

You will always know you are in a wetland when you find the persistent spore stalks of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis).

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is a lovely blue summer wildflower that doesn't mind at all having its feet in the mud.  The candelabra shape of its inflorescence is obvious, even in winter.

I loved the graceful shape of this cluster of Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), rendered easily identifiable by the tight steeple-shaped floral remains at the ends of the stems.

I've left the wetland habitat now, climbing a sandy trail at the north end of the pond. The flowers that grow here are happiest in dry, low-nutrient soils. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is one of those flowers.  Since the leaves of this particular plant are long gone, I won't hazard a guess as to which of the goldenrod species this is, except that it's one that bears its flowers in a cluster shaped like a fountain.

I do know which species of bushclover this is, since only the Round-headed Bushclover (Lespedeza capitata) bears its flowers in compact almost-orbs like these.

I bet almost everybody can recognize the dried umbel of Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), even after its dainty little white florets have morphed into what resembles a broad bouquet of small dark spiders.

Even in winter, the dried leaves of Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) still hold their graceful curves, so elegant against the blank white of the snow. Even better, they also still hold their delicious fragrance, tempting me to gather handfuls of them to press against my nose and breathe deeply of that scent. Eventually, the leaves will desiccate and crumble as the winter wears on.  But the furry little male catkins clustered at the ends of the stems will endure, waiting for the first warmth of spring to fluff out their scales and release their pollen on the air.  Tiny red puffs of female flowers will be emerging on neighboring stalks, ready to receive that pollen and produce next summer's seeds.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Not Today

We had a few inches of snow last night.  Then it rained. Nothing but slush underfoot.  I'm not going outdoors today. To cheer myself, I looked through old blog posts of mine to find evidence that such weather never used to dissuade me from outdoor adventures. That could have been because I weighed quite a bit less, didn't have trauma-induced arthritis in one knee, or lungs growing stiff yet from COPD. Or maybe I'm just feeling low-energy because of stress surrounding the covid pandemic and the horrors of the current political situation.  Whatever.  Nevertheless, I did find some photos to remind me that beauty can be found outdoors, even on winter days as dismally dark and damp as this one.

This photo of fog rising from the surface of an ice-covered Saratoga Lake was taken a few years ago on just such a mid-winter rainy day as today.  I was reminded of Japanese ink drawings and found the view breathtaking.

The twigs of Red Osier Dogwood seem even more brilliantly red in the dim light of a dark rainy winter day, their beauty enhanced when decorated with crystal-clear raindrops.

This monochrome scene of snow-covered fields and leafless trees was rendered magical by drifts of mist rising from rain-soaked snow.

This January day was dark and cold, but the raindrops were dancing quite merrily on the surface of an open creek.

I'm not sure how this oak leaf became so impressively arrayed on its frosted escutcheon, but I believe rain had washed the surrounding snow from the surface of the ice-covered lake.

Is this photo really one of the most beautiful I've ever taken? Or do I just love it so much because it represents so much of what I love about where I live:  where forested mountains fall straight to the unspoiled banks of an island-studded river? Above the constantly flowing current, the water was smooth as glass on this unseasonably warm January day, and the rising mist rendered the scene even more magical than it always appears to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A Tardy List: New Plants From 2020

Recent upheavals -- both personal and political -- have distracted me from my annual New Year's task: recording here in my blog all new plant finds from the year just past. In the broader scheme of things, I realize, "Who cares?"  But over the now 12 years I've been keeping this blog, it has grown to be a rather comprehensive searchable record of regional flora, and I've come to depend on it to remind me not only of what plants I've found, but also where and when. So, just for the record, here goes:

Prevancher's Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicum var. prevancheri)

Yeah, I know, it looks like just another no'count waste-place weed, like our other fleabanes, natives though they may be.  But this one's pretty special.  Prevancher's Fleabane has only recently been defined as a distinct variety of fleabane, and it's now recognized as an Endangered species (S1) in New York State, where it has been found in very few places. I happened upon it in mid-September along the exposed shale banks of the Hoosic River in Rensselaer County, exactly the kind of habitat that Prevancher's Fleabane is known to prefer.  The short stature of the flower stalk was my first clue (our other fleabanes are leggier), but the persistent basal leaves this late in the year and dearth of stem leaves were the clinchers.  I am happy to report I found many more plants than this blooming cluster: over 200 of the leafy rosettes sprouting out of a steep shale bank in the same area.

Winged Monkey Flower (Mimulus alatus)

Okay, I personally did not find this unusual Monkey Flower, nor did I first see it in 2020.  No, my friend Sue Pierce first spotted its non-blooming stalks back in the fall of 2019 while exploring a creek bed at the Saratoga Battlefield with our group of botanical buddies, The Thursday Naturalists. After noting the long winged leaf stems and the short flower stalks (just the opposite of those of the more common Monkey Flower [M. ringens]), the consensus then was that this must be the Winged Monkey Flower.  When Sue and I returned to the site in mid-August of 2020 to seek it in bloom, we found abundant numbers of these pretty pale-purple flowers. There were so many plants (well over a hundred) that Sue felt free to collect a specimen to submit to the New York Natural Heritage Program, in order that this Rare (S3) plant could be vouchered as present in Saratoga County. (She did have permission to do so from the NYNHP's chief botanist.)

Here's another photo, showing the face of the Winged Monkey Flower. The photo above shows the long leaf stalks and short flower stalks that distinguish this species.

* * *

The two rare plants named above were the only native species that were new to me this past year.  The next two plants are both non-native, both of them introduced species originating in Asia and now gaining a foothold in the United States. It's fair to say I wasn't particularly happy to have found them, since both plants have the potential to become invasive.

Far-eastern Smartweed (Persicaria extremiorientalis)

Whoa! Who fed some Ladies' Thumb steroids?!  That was my first thought when I found these gigantic smartweeds at the edge of a thoroughly-disturbed-soil vacant lot on the Skidmore College campus in Saratoga Springs.  They stood on stems up to my eyeballs and with flower clusters a good eight or ten inches long, and they DID look almost exactly like the much more diminutive smartweed called Ladies' Thumb (long the bane of over-tidy gardeners, everywhere).  They even had the darkish "thumbprint" on many of the huge leaves. Except the plants were humongous. I later found out that this was another non-native species of Persicaria, related to Ladies' Thumb but only relatively recently established in northeastern North America. The vernacular name, Far-eastern Smartweed, is a direct translation of the scientific name, Persicaria extremiorientalis, indicating the Asian origin. The New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas shows this species as documented for only 5 counties in the state, so far, all of them much farther south than Saratoga County. Uh oh! Looks like this plant is heading north.

Vietnamese Balm, AKA Crested Late-Summer Mint (Elsholtzia ciliata)

I was with my friend Ruth Brooks when we saw this unknown flowering plant on the shore of the Hoosic River in Rensselaer County in mid-September.  Well, it sure looked like a Mint Family plant, with its square stem, opposite fragrant leaves, and small purple flowers.  But between the two of us, we know all the mints we were likely to find around here, and this wasn't one of them. Luckily, Ruth is a heck of a lot more tech-savvy than I am, with a cellphone loaded with plant-ID apps, so it took but a moment -- after she loaded a photo and pushed a few keys -- to discover that this was another Asian import, called Vietnamese Balm (and yes, a Mint Family plant). I later learned that local folks of Asian descent often grow this plant for both culinary and medicinal purposes, so it's not really so surprising that it's now making its way from kitchen gardens to the banks of a local river. The New York Flora Association's Plant Atlas shows it rather widely distributed across New York State, although not yet necessarily abundant. Not a happy find, however.  According to Wikipedia, Elsholtzia ciliata has been classified as a "noxious weed" in 46 states.

* * *

The next two plants are ones I thought I knew well.  But in the case of the aster, I failed to notice a pertinent detail, and I had the name wrong. In the case of the Spiranthes species, its name has been changed from one I've known, correctly, for many years. So, not new plant finds, but definitely ones I now know new names for.

Pringle's Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei)

Peeking out from amid other plants that lined a sandy path at the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa 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! Except that I've probably seen it many times, just calling it by the wrong name.  According to NYFA's Plant Atlas, the Pringle's Aster, "compared to the typical variety of S. pilosum, . . . grows in drier sites with less herbaceous competition, and more often is in more native type habitats."

Sphinx [formerly Nodding] Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva)

Sigh!  I thought I had all our local species of Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes spp.) down flat, according to when they bloomed: S. lucida in June, S. romanzoffiana in early August,  S. cernua in early September, and S. ochroleuca as late as October.  They're kind of hard to tell apart, otherwise.  Well, I don't know about the other species,  but the species we used to know as Spiranthes cernua (Nodding Ladies' Tresses) has now been assigned to a number of other species in addition to S. cernua.  Turns out, we don't really have S. cernua in Saratoga County, and the orchid we used to know by that name is really Spiranthes incurva (Sphinx Ladies' Tresses). At any rate, the Ladies' Tresses pictured here, which I used to call S. cernua, I must now learn to call S. incurva. It still looks and smells the same as it always did, with the sharp curve of its florets' lower lips and its sweet fragrance. It is quite a common species of this orchid in Saratoga County, and I found this one blooming at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in early September.

* * *

Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata)

This last find for the year was a small tree with big oval dangling leaves that had turned yellow in the late-October woods near Schuylerville. It was obviously not a sapling of the surrounding oaks and hickories and hornbeams, but what the heck was it?  Neither my pal Sue nor I could even hazard a guess.  A close look at the end of a twig revealed a new bud that was covered with a pale pubescence, and I could also detect a stipule scar that completely encircled the twig.  After posting the photo above  on a Facebook page dedicated to the flora of New York and asking for ID suggestions, these two features -- the pubescent bud and the encircling scar -- were exactly the features that convinced several expert responders that this was a tree in the Magnolia Family.  A Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), to be exact, a tree that is native to our northeastern region, including counties adjacent to Saratoga County (although not yet recorded from here).  I never even knew that we had any native magnolias around here!  Facebook can be an amazing source of information!

We could not find any signs that would indicate these trees had bloomed or borne fruit.  Were the ones we found (and there were many) too young as yet? Were there older and larger magnolia trees in this same woods that had already dropped their leaves and so we couldn't identify them?  For sure, Sue and I will return to this woods next spring, hoping to find Cucumber Magnolias in bloom. And if we do, I'll come back here and post a photo of the flower.  Unless I save it to post next January in my next year's blog post, "New Plants From 2021".

Friday, January 8, 2021

A Short Walk On the Side of the Road

 I awoke on Wednesday (January 6) to the grand news that a Black and a Jew -- both members of the very people singled out for murder by the Ku Klux Klan -- would now be the two U.S. Senators representing the state of Georgia. Georgia, the very heart of the Confederacy! Could the Civil War truly be coming to an end at last? And would our newly elected President now have a Senate that could aid him in bringing peace and healing to our nation? What joyful news!   But my morning elation was shortly dispelled by the horrors happening at our nation's Capitol Building all that afternoon and evening, as ignorant mobs smashed their way inside and attempted to prohibit the final vote that would make the election official.  Churning emotions sure interfered with my equanimity, and continued to do so on Thursday. Only a walk outdoors could help to calm me. What better place to go than to beautiful Spier Falls Road, which follows the Hudson River where the Palmertown Mountains fall directly to the river's  banks?

Many steep rocky ledges line the road, the craggy rocks dampened and darkened by constantly seeping springs.  This time of year, these dripping rocks are decorated with cascading icicles.

Tiny rills tumble down the mountainsides, and even in winter, open water dances from rock to rock, splashing droplets on overhanging twigs until the twigs are bulbous with pearlescent ice.

But the most spectacular ice awaits at several quarries, where back at the start of the 20th Century, rock was blasted out of the mountainside to provide material for the building of Spier Falls Dam,  which lies across the road from the quarries. On these cliffside ledges, seeping springs create exquisite bridal veils of icicles, with some of the icicles reaching lengths of  8 feet or more. As the winter continues, the ice builds up to massive thicknesses and acquires a beautiful shade of blue.

While walking in the woods beneath this cascading ice, I happened upon a fallen limb protruding from the snow that looked as if it were covered with bunches of carved ivory flowers.  A closer look revealed that these ruffled "flowers" were actually the undersides of a fungus called Crimped Gill (Plicaturopsis crispa).  I would guess it's pretty obvious how this fungus acquired that vernacular name.

I turned the limb over to see the tops of the fungus, a more colorful tawny orange that fades to ivory at the edge.

Where a constant stream of dripping water had erased all the snow from the forest floor, I came upon this colorful Wild Strawberry plant (Fragaria virginiana) looking quite fresh and springlike, although its fur-covered green leaves and red stems both looked as if they were dressed for winter.

I was pleased to encounter such a reminder of spring at this dark time. I'm going to embrace this find as a promise of happier days that lie ahead.