Saturday, May 1, 2021

Quick Stop-over at Woods Hollow

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.

And I was right.  These were the long, skinny, and very fragrant bud scales that had held the glossy green leaves of Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera) now freshly opened on the tree and shining in the sun.

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.

Masses of small white violets prettied a muddy swale.  We have several species of native white violets that are difficult to tell apart, but the damp habitat as well as the rounded leaves led me to believe these were probably Viola pallens, sometimes called Smooth White Violet or Northern White Violet.

The orbs of tiny star-shaped flowers of Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolia) were blooming abundantly beneath the trees in a wooded wetland.

The pure-white flowers of Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) were just beginning to bloom in that same shady spot. The flowers were so newly opened that the curly-tipped green pistils had yet to unfurl from amid the cluster of numerous white stamens, and the club-shaped translucent petals were still rather green and had yet to assume their golden yellow color. What look like the showy petals are actually the sepals of these early spring flowers. Although they are out of focus in this photo, you can see on the ground beneath the flower the glossy compound leaves, divided into three scalloped leaflets.

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.


threecollie said...

Sorry for your negative experience, but the consolation walk sounds wonderful. I am treasuring every day this spring...except for the howling gale, snow and sleet ones that is.

Woody Meristem said...

Just as the native status of cuckoo flower is in a bit of dispute so too is that of the red fox. The red fox is, without question, native to Eurasia and northwestern North America (Alaska and the Yukon) but whether it is native to the east or whether red fox in the northeast are actually descended from animals introduced from England has been argued for many years.

The Furry Gnome said...

Nothing like a nature reserve to cool your frustration. We have lots of Balsam Poplar up here.

Deb said...

Always delighted to read about your delight in simple finds. I thought there is a typo for the common name of Panax trifolius - it should read Dwarf ginseng, not gentian.

Unknown said...

I went for a walk last summer in a protected area just outside Saratoga Springs, along or near old rail road tracks? Can't remember the name. I was struck by the difference in diversity and density of vegetation between this place and my usual walks just 40 or so miles north. Love it.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

three collie: I commiserate about this yucky weather. But I'm so glad you keep finding the birds you love, no matter how soggy the conditions.

Woody Meristem: I had NO idea that Red Foxes were an introduced species in the northeast. They certainly seem to have fit in without upsetting the natural order of things too much. No shortage of mice that I can detect!

Furry Gnome: Yes, without access to beautiful woods and wetlands, I'd probably be a basket case! I'm not surprised you have lots of Balsam Poplars and we here down south do not.

Deb: I do thank you for alerting me to my species error. Old age is my excuse, I guess. I'm lucky if I can recall ANY proper names these days. Thanks to you (and my blog's edit function), my embarrassment didn't persist too long. I am so grateful for observant readers like you!

Unknown: The trail you describe sounds exactly like the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail that lies just east of the city and follows the route of an old railroad track. Despite the name, the wetlands either side of the trail could be better described as wooded wetland (swamps) or open marsh. There is one small pool where I do find Bog Buckbean growing, though. I have found many, many beautiful and unusual wildflowers along this trail. If you search my blog for "Bog Meadow" you can get some idea of how amazing this wonderful habitat is.