I was feeling kind of bummed today. I'd called the Agway in Ballston Spa to see if they had any native shrubs and was told, oh yes, we have TONS of them. Well, they didn't. Even the two I found that were native species -- a Clethra alnifolia and a Kalmia latifolia -- were "nativars," altered from the straight species of Sweet Pepperbush and Mountain Laurel to appeal to gardeners more than to native pollinators or insect larvae. I guess the person I spoke with at Agway interpreted "native" to mean anything that would grow in this part of the world, no matter how exotic. Luckily, Ballston Spa is only a few miles south of Saratoga. And happily, one of my favorite nature preserves -- Woods Hollow -- is located on the way home. So I pulled in there to soothe my grumpy mood.
The first remarkable thing I noticed at Woods Hollow was a large mass of shiny gold bud scales lying on the entrance path:
I suspected what they might be, but I picked up a handful of the sticky scales and took a sniff, just to be sure.
A close look at the back of a leaf revealed the "mudcrack"pattern of tiny veins that clinched the ID.
Balsam Poplar is native to New York State but it really prefers a colder climate than we offer in Saratoga County. Although this pretty tree thrives in the Adirondack region of New York, we don't see them very often around here. So this was a nice find today, helping to soothe my irritation regarding a commercial operation that didn't know a native plant from a hole in the ground. They even offered Burning Bush for sale! AAARGH!!!
A few more pretty native plants awaited me as I made a quick circuit of a swampy trail that circles the pond at the center of the Woods Hollow Preserve. The snowy-white bells of Leatherleaf flowers (Chamaedaphne calyculata) dangled on arching stems beneath their leathery oval leaves.
After I returned home, I took a walk in Saratoga's Congress Park, just a block from my house. And there in the grass, I found dozens and dozens of blooming Cuckoo Flowers (Cardamine pratensis). Remembering it was May Day, when I long ago used to pick little bouquets of dandelions and violets out of the lawn to present to my mom, I picked myself a little bouquet of these native wildflowers before the approaching mowers could shear off their pale-pink fragrant blooms.
I am discovering great discrepancy in opinion regarding the native status of Cardamine pratensis. Several states, New York, Minnesota, and Missouri among them, count this circumpolar wildflower as a native North American species, as does the Newcomb's Wildflower Guide and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Yet BONAP and GoBotany (and probably others) claim it is not native. Since I am a New Yorker, I will concur with what our state botanists declare. But why is there so much disagreement? I would love to hear some arguments for both decisions.
UPDATE: I have heard from a number of authoritative sources that there are actually TWO distinct species called Cuckoo Flower, one native and one introduced from Eurasia. Arthur Haines, author of Flora Novae Angliae: A Manual for the Identification of Native and Naturalized Vascular Plants of New England, has informed me that "Cardamine pratensis . . . originated in Eurasia. The problem is that a native and very closely related taxon (Cardamine dentata) has been recognized in the past as Cardamine pratensis var. palustris. Then, some taxonomic authors simply united the species together (considering it one taxon that ranged over North America and Europe). However, the two taxa are readily identifiable. The problem has been that the characteristics are poorly articulated in keys, so that has led to confusion. But, confusion by botanists who fail to accurately describe the differences does not mean these two organisms are not discrete taxa."
According to information I received from several other sources, our NATIVE Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine dentata) has pure-white flowers and is rather rare in this region, being limited to high-pH wetlands. The INTRODUCED Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis) has pale-purple flowers and is found abundantly throughout our region -- including where I found those in my photo above, the spring-dampened grass at Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs.