Monday, May 31, 2021

Another Day, Another Habitat

So many different habitats, so little time!  Just note the variety of habitats I've posted about in only the past two weeks:  oak/pine savanna, riparian islands, marble-paved ice meadows, wooded wetlands, a pocket-sized bog!  And here's another I explored just yesterday in the rain: a densely wooded creekside swamp, home to a couple of wetland plants I have found nowhere else (at least, so far).  More than any other creek I visit in the Saratoga area, this one has the lowest, muddiest shoreline that supports the densest vegetation right up to and even beyond the water's edge. I have to wear boots or water shoes to adequately explore this verdant but mucky environment.

This is the Spring Run Swamp, which borders the Spring Run Creek, a watercourse that feeds into Loughberry Lake, the main reservoir for the city of Saratoga Springs. Some of the shoreline is carpeted with Sphagnum Moss, which imparts a certain acidity to areas of the swamp, but the patches of sphagnum are not extensive enough to create true bog conditions, since I find here none of the other plants I usually associate with bogs.

What I DO find here are two wetland plants I have not yet found in other area wetlands, and this is the time I visit them now, since both are now coming into bloom.  The first is called Swamp Saxifrage (Micranthes pensylvanica),  a plant that will be found only in low, mucky, saturated soils. It has large, tapering basal leaves that grow in a rosette, and the thick, densely hairy stems grow so long they often topple over when the clusters of flowers come into bloom. It is very difficult to get a clear photo of all parts of this plant at once (especially with rain spattering on my camera lens).

Here's a closer look at the Swamp Saxifrage's odd little flowers,  mostly consisting of orange-tipped anthers surrounding a bulbous bi-parted green ovary and ringed with yellowish sepals.

The second species I wade through mud here to find is this tall robust plant called Water Speedwell (Veronica anagallis-aquatica).  Although this is not a plant that is native to North America, it is widespread across the United States. With such a widespread distribution, you'd think I might find this plant in every wetland I explore.  And yet, this swamp is the only wetland where I have happened to see it growing abundantly.

The Water Speedwell's tiny blue flowers display the characteristics common to all speedwell flowers: four-petaled with the lowest petal slightly narrower, and all petals faintly striped a darker blue.

Here's a third wetland species I come here to see, this huge-leaved plant soaring above the others called Swamp Dock (Rumex verticillatus).  I do find this species in other swamps, but this is the only swamp I've visited where I can walk right up to it. To date, there's no record of this plant in Saratoga County, so I hope to collect a specimen of it when its tall flower stalk comes into bloom, in order to submit it to state botanists to voucher its presence in the county.

While I'm here, I also enjoy visiting old wetland friends like Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).  When blooming, this native plant bears large yellow flowers so showy it's hard to believe this is not a cultivated garden species.  And after the flowers fade, Marsh Marigold produces these spiky starbursts of seedpods that are equally attractive.

Here's a closer look at one of Marsh Marigold's seedhead of spiky pods. Each pod will eventually open to reveal a row of dark shiny seeds within.

Another old wetland favorite are the flowers of Water Avens (Geum rivale), yellow petals and feathery anthers tucked within rosy-red sepals that never open wide.

The bright-white flowers in this semi-circular arrangement of Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) seemed to glow in the dark shade of this swamp.

It is not at all unusual to find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit in any dampish soils, but this particular one had me stop to take a closer look.

Most Jack-in-the-Pulpits display prominent white stripes on the hooded spathes, but I noted that these stripes were actually raised ridges on this particular plant.  That field mark indicates that this plant is the species called Swamp Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema stewarsonii), a common species found only in wetlands.

The rain was falling harder now, and I headed out, afraid the wet would ruin my camera if I tried to take other photos.  But I'm glad I still had my camera in hand when this Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly landed on the frond of a Sensitive Fern, displaying his iridescent beauty.

One more flower stopped me on my run to my car: this gorgeous cluster of bright-white sterile flowers circling the fertile but less-showy blooms at the center of this Highbush Cranberry flower (Viburnum opulus var. americanum).

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A Lupine Extravaganza -- and Mine Alone!

Cold and rainy today.  But did that dissuade me from going outdoors?  Not a chance!  I had heard that the Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis) had been putting on their annual show at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park for nearly a week now, and I sure wanted to catch it before these gorgeous native wildflowers faded.  The rainy cold only meant that few other people would likely be crowding the trails today (this renowned mass flowering draws lots of spectators from miles around). And I was right.  I had the park and its glories all to myself!  And what a show it was!  This was the scene that met my eyes after just a few yards along the preserve's Gick Farm trails:

Wild Lupines are not really a rare plant in Saratoga County, with vast regions of sandy, low-nutrient soil abounding in many areas.  Lupines, like all Pea Family plants, can actually produce all the nutrients they need out of the air! I know of several places to see these flowers, including stretches right along the highway.  But rare are the places one can see just acres and acres of land simply carpeted with masses of them in all their purple glory.  The Wilton preserve is one of those sites, because the managers groom the habitat there specifically for lupines, and then they plant masses of them.  After nearly swooning with amazement at the scene pictured above,  I set off along the trail to see what other glories awaited further afield.


I didn't have to walk far. Almost every turn in the trail brought scenes like these below into view:

Now, as much as we humans appreciate the magnificent floral show the Wilton Wildlife Preserve puts on with these mass lupine plantings, they really don't do it for us.  As it happens, the leaves of Lupinus perennis provide the only food that the larvae of the federally endangered Karner Blue Butterfly is able to eat, so this wildflower site is managed specifically to support a thriving population of this rare butterfly. These butterflies actually abound at the Wilton Preserve, but the cold rain today kept them lying low and out of sight. Luckily, on a sunnier day a few years ago, I managed to capture in a single photo both sexes of Karner Blues (the male a bright blue, the female a dark brown) as they fed on the nectar of Blackberry flowers, another floral species that thrives at the Wilton Preserve. While their larvae can feed only on lupine leaves, the adults can feed on any flower that offers nectar.

There's little doubt that the Wild Lupines are the star that attracts the crowds to this preserve, but there's another beautiful plant that many wildflower-lovers travel here to see.  That's the Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), one of our showiest native orchids, and it thrives in the sandy soil of the pine woods that surround the open meadows where the lupines grow. Just a few steps into the woods reveals how abundant their population is at this site.

Every few steps along the trail reveals yet another specimen of this deep-pink orchid,  each one encountered seeming even lovelier than the last.

Masses of fragrant Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) also thrive in the shade of these woods.

I missed the bloom-time of another exquisite spring wildflower that abounds in these woods, which is called Starflower (Lysimachia borealis) because of its star-shaped, pure-white blooms. But I love the equally exquisite Starflower seedpod, a perfect tiny sphere set within star-shaped bracts, held aloft on a stem so thread-fine it seems that the seedpod just floats in the air.

The rain was beginning to fall in earnest now, as I hurried back in the direction of my car.  But I had to stop to admire the glossy green leaves and bright-yellow flowers of this lovely patch of Clintonia (Clintonia borealis).  Another name for this native wildflower is Blue-bead Lily, suggested by the royal-blue, perfectly round fruits that replace those yellow flowers later in summer.

I also paused to delight in the glittering diamond drops that had formed at the center of each rain-watered lupine leaf.

The vibrant orange of these Pitch Pine flowers (Pinus rigida) also caused me to halt to capture their strange kind of beauty in a photo.  They also reminded me to mention that the particular habitat I'd explored today is called an "oak/pine savanna," and aptly so, since several species of oaks and pines inhabit the site.  Another name for it is "sand plain grassland," also an apt name for this site in which several species of native grasses are being restored.

This Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia) is only one of the oaks that thrive in this oak/pine savanna, and it's also the smallest one. Its small size suggested another of its vernacular names -- Scrub Oak -- and the shape of its leaves are the reason it's also called the Holly-leaved Oak (which is what the specific epithet "ilicifolia" actually means).  The "bear" of its other name, I've been told, has to do with its acorns being so bitter, only a hungry bear laying on fat before hibernation would consume them.  So many names for such a small tree!

And oh my gosh, such a huge tree for a dogwood species! I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw this Alternate-leaved Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) towering almost as tall as its neighboring birches. I had only encountered this dogwood before as a head-high shrub.

The Alternate-leaved Dogwood got that name because of the alternate branching of its twigs (all other dogwoods have opposite branches). This species is also known as Pagoda Dogwood, a name suggested by its tiered horizontal branching. Today, every one of its branches was holding large floral clusters aloft.

I plucked one of those floral clusters to better examine its florets, and the cluster assumed the shape of a heart.  What an appropriate sign of love, for such a lovely outing I had, even despite (or maybe because of) the rain!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Braving a Gale to See (and SMELL!) the Azaleas

A rowdy wind was whipping up whitecaps on the Hudson River today, as I stood on the shore of the Sherman Island Boat Launch, canoe on my shoulder, eyeing what could be risky waters. Did I dare buck the wind and waves to head out to those little islands not far offshore, islands that called to me like my own personal Bali Ha'i?  This would be my first paddle of the year, and I wasn't sure yet if another year on my aging body would have sapped my strength as I struggled against the wind. But then I remembered what bloomed on those islands this time of year, and off I went.

Close to shore, the wind abated, and I eased along this familiar riverbank, delighted to see old friends like these adorably dainty little Bluets, tucked in among dramatically gnarly tree roots.

My dismay at seeing so many invasive honeysuckles this year was lightened when I spied these tall green stalks, the first of many I soon would discover.  By the end of June, these stalks will be topped by the gorgeous big yellow flowers of Great St. John's Wort, a spectacular native wildflower that is classified as Rare in New York.  Looks as if it has found a happy home here along these shores, despite the challenge of invasive species!

 Even before I spied this cluster of bright-pink flowers, I could smell their exquisite fragrance as I neared the middle of the three small islands.

Since about 15 years ago,  the first time I discovered the abundance of Early Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) on these three islands, the habitat has changed considerably.  Due to both flooding and the persistence of beavers, what was once a woodland shaded by Paper Birch, Red Maple, Quaking Aspen and White Ash is now a sun-drenched shrub meadow, dominated by Black Huckleberry, Low Blueberry, and numerous ferns. One year, the beavers had even sheared off the azalea shrubs down to the ground, but still they persisted, having regrown even more abundantly than before.  This vibrant-rose Early Azalea shrub seems to stand in defiance of the evidence of beaver destruction looming over it.

Everywhere I looked, I spied yet another shrub bursting with beautiful flowers, this one surrounded by ferns.

This one nestled in among a thicket of Black Huckleberry.

The huckleberry flowers were a treat to see in their own right, with both buds and open flowers a deep ruby red.

If you look closely at the flowers, you can see the fluid-tipped glandular hairs on the flower tubes,  the source of the intense fragrance that distinguishes this vibrantly pink Early Azalea from the very similar Pinxter Azalea (R. periclymenoides).

This solitary cluster of blooms surmounted a single woody stalk.  Whatever the force is within these flowers to thrive against many challenges, I am certainly grateful to find that they not only persist out here, but  absolutely thrive. And on all three of the islands of this miniature archipelago, a group of special islands, indeed!

I could have stayed out here for hours, but the wind was growing ever more fierce, and with thunderstorms predicted shortly, I knew it was time to head for shore. I made it safely, of course. But I'm awfully glad I ventured out here today, despite the risk.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Violets Galore on This Hudson Shore!

Since I am scheduled to lead a wildflower walk on the east bank of the Hudson River Ice Meadows in a couple of weeks, I hope to be able to show the participants some really rare plants. This particular stretch of rivershore is truly famous for rare plants, due to the unique conditions created by huge heaps of a special frothy ice (called frazil) that pile up on these shores most winters. Plus, the soil here is rich in lime, thanks to the marble outcroppings along these banks, a few miles north of Warrensburg, N.Y.  I had heard that one of the rarest plants in all of New York -- the New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae) -- could be found out here, and since it probably would be in bloom now, I wanted to see if I could find it for myself.  So I came to visit this special place a few days ago.

The Hudson was calm, the surrounding countryside green and lush, when I made my way down the sloping bank to the shore.

Even aside from supporting a host of rare plants, these shores are remarkable for the stretches of beautiful marble outcroppings, overlaid with swirling streams of darker magma.

The first rare plant I encountered as soon as I stepped on the shore was this Dwarf Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa). As fragrant as they are lovely, the flowers filled the warm humid air with their wonderful scent.  This low-growing shrub is ranked as a Threatened species in the state, but one would never guess its rarity, judging by its abundant population here, sprawling among the rocks.

Heading upstream toward the spot where I'd been told I might find that rare violet, I stopped to admire a vivid display of Wild Columbine (Aqualegia canadensis) that adorned the riverside rocks.

I almost despaired of finding any flowers among a scattered patch of glossy Bearberry leaves (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), but I finally spied this cluster of pink-tipped white bells.  Raging floods had ripped this Bearberry patch apart a few years ago, but instead of destroying it, the flood just sent segments of stems downstream, where they have taken root and widely expanded the original patch.

I certainly had no difficulty spying this vividly colorful patch of Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) high on the bank near the treeline. I did not recall ever finding this species before along this shore, and wondered how I could have missed it. Perhaps I never visited here during its blooming time.

The only reason I knew where to find this fern ally called Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris) is that a friend had shown it to me some years ago.  And it persists, virtually unchanged, atop a rocky ledge where it lies nearly hidden by other vegetation that surrounds it.

I always take a very close look at this Rock Spikemoss, hoping to find the tiny yellow balls that are its spore cones.  Aha!  There they are! Tucked in among the spiky leaves.

While searching for my super-rare New England Violet, I stopped to note how many other violets call this rivershore home. This pure-white violet with the lance-shaped leaves is called (take a guess!) the Lance-leaved Violet (Viola lanceolata).  It must be quite happy here, for I found more patches of it this year than ever before.

Here was another white violet, only this one had broader, more oblong leaves. This is the Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia), and it's really not supposed to grow here.  It's a Threatened species, and one that had never been reported from this location or any other county remotely close to this one (Warren County), until I found it here back in 2016.  But this Ice Meadows site is known to support several other disjunct plants, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by any plant we find here.  Although I certainly was, five years ago! I'm happy to report that the Primrose-leaved Violet still survives at this site, especially now that plants of it have migrated up the bank, safer from where raging floods uprooted many of the stems I had originally found in the cobble at the river's edge.

Those white violets are interesting, as well as very pretty.  But the violet I was especially hoping to find today is vividly purple, not white.  When I spied a bunch of vividly purple violets close to where I'd been told I might find that New England Violet, my heart leaped!  Could this be IT?  Sadly, no, as a closer look revealed. This is a beautiful native violet called the Ovate-leaved Violet (Viola sagittata var. ovata), distinguished by the pronounced fuzziness of its stems and oval leaves. But it wasn't the sought-after New England Violet, which has long, very tapered leaves. And its flowers are a brighter purple.

But then, when I stepped back from that clump of Ovate-leaved Violets,  I spied another purple violet  right nearby, and this one looked more like the one I was hoping to find.

And so it was!  Here were the long tapered leaves and furry-faced flower of New England Violet! But gee, is this all I'll find, this measly little single bloom? Not even any buds that might still produce a flower when I visit here on my guided walk in early June.  Oh well.  I said it was rare, didn't I? I've been told that these Hudson Ice Meadows (both banks) are the only places this violet has been found in all New York State. But at least I can say that I found it. (Thanks to some careful directions from a state botanist.)

Rain was approaching, so I cut short my exploring and headed back downstream, hoping to reach my car before any deluge.  And guess what I found in the cobble, when I wasn't even looking!  Do you see those bright-purple blooms peeking out above the rocks? Let's take a closer look.

Wow!  A beautiful example of the New England Violet! No other purple-flowered native violet has long tapered leaves like this. And there were buds!  Perhaps I will be able to point out this super-rare plant when I lead my walk participants here. I took careful note of surrounding landmarks, so I should be able at least to find the leaves when I return in June.

Off to the other side!

Yes, I know.  I should have been more than satisfied, after finding that perfect specimen of New England Violets on the east bank of the Hudson.  But I recalled finding many, many more of these marvelous blooms on the west bank of the Hudson, and how could I miss my chance to witness their beauty again, now that they would be in perfect bloom? So off I went.

The sky had cleared a bit and the threat of rain subsided as I made my way upriver to where rocky promontories jutted into the rushing river.

And there, in the deep cracks in the rocks, dozens of New England Violets flourished, and they were in beautiful bloom.

Deep down amid the rock walls, where raging floodwaters can't tug at them, this population of one of New York's rarest flowers has found a secure and happy home.

And I even found a few new New England Violet plants I had never noticed before. But who knows how long they will persist in this exposed place between the rock ledges?  One might think that, this high above the river's regular water level, spring floods couldn't reach them up here. Um . . . . That pile of huge tree trunks aren't the remnants of trees that once grew there.  They got heaped here by raging floodwaters.  When you think about that, isn't it a miracle that ANYthing grows out here on the Ice Meadows?  Let alone such an exceedingly rare plant as the New England Violet!