Friday, June 25, 2021

Great Floral Finds in Seemingly Unlikely Sites

You might think that rare plants would prefer to be found in lush, super-accommodating places. But that's often not the case.  During this past week, the rarest, most interesting plants I encountered were thriving at two different locations that, at first sight, appeared unlikely to support any plant but perhaps some waste-place weeds.  One location was the rugged, rocky, ice- and flood-ravaged shore of a northern stretch of the Hudson River. The other was a herbicide-blasted, low-nutrient, sandy-soiled clearing beneath some powerlines at Moreau Lake State Park. Here is a digest of some of the rare and interesting plants I found in these two places.

A Hudson River shoreline called the Ice Meadows

At first glance, all I can see at this Hudson River shore are the flood-eroded bald bedrock and woody shrubs that somehow have found a foothold in this harsh environment. During some winters, heaps of a special turbulence-formed ice called frazil mount all the way into the woods, toppling trees and even pushing across the riverside road. In spring, roaring floodwaters rage over these rocks, depositing flotsam as large as huge tree-trunks way up on the shore, shoving any loose boulders around, and uprooting any plants that aren't tethered tightly to the bedrock. That's the bad part.  The good part is, that all that ice suppresses the growth of trees that would shade this meadow-like habitat, and it also doesn't melt until late in the spring, discouraging the incursion of non-native invasive plants, allowing those native plants that can endure this environment to have the place all to themselves.  As a result, some of eastern North America's rarest plant species have survived and now thrive in this place, finding it quite to their liking.

As soon as I took a few steps toward the shore, I  discovered abundant numbers of one of those really rare plants, Sticky Tofieldia (Triantha glutinosa), growing as profusely along the shore as dandelions in a suburban lawn.  This plant is listed as an Endangered species in New York State, but you would never guess its rarity if you could see how it abounds here.  (If you look closely at this photo, you can see the tiny resinous dots on the stem that suggested this plant's vernacular name.)

The Sticky Tofieldia not only thrives in the sand near the shore, but it also grows in large populations around the many spring-fed pools that collect among the bedrock.  Some really rare sedges populate these pools as well, and I think I see the Threatened species called Buxbaum's Sedge  (Carex buxbaumii) protruding from this large patch of Tofieldia.

A number of our state's native orchids also make this shoreline their home. This little orchid, called Shining Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes lucida), is not a rare one in New York, but I found only this single plant, down near the water's edge. Our earliest Spiranthes species to bloom, it can be easily identified by its florets' yellow lower lips.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) is not only one of our state's prettiest orchids, it's also one of our commonest ones.  It certainly thrives along this rocky riverside in abundant numbers.

Did I mention that Rose Pogonia grows here in abundant numbers? Oh yes, indeed, it does!

When I visited this site in early May, the fragrance of Dwarf Sand Cherry's blossoms filled the air.  This state-listed Threatened species (Prunus pumila var. depressa is its scientific name) sprawls in great numbers across the rocky shore, its low branches thick now with ripening fruit.

Racemed Milkwort (Polygals polygama) is a tiny-flowered plant that would probably go unnoticed among the gravel and boulders here if not for its vivid pink-purple color.  This particular cluster of blooms looked especially pretty, backed by the rugged texture of eroded bedrock.

It astonishes me that a flower of such delicate beauty as Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) can thrive in such an inhospitable site as a crevice in the bare rock, exposed to all the punishments that a blazing sun and whipping winds can throw at its dainty blooms and slender stems.

Here's another Harebell that appears to have taken shelter within a deep fissure in the riverside bedrock. I can also spy down deep in there the tapered leaves of New York's rarest violet, the New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae), a species that has been reported from no other location in the state except for the Hudson River Ice Meadows.

For such an extremely rare plant, the New England Violet has found a very happy home among the deep cracks and crevices of the bedrock along the Hudson.  The species can be readily identified by its long, tapering, heart-shaped leaves that crowd together in the sheltering rock.

Oh, so many roses, such beautiful roses, such fragrant roses, wafting their heavenly scent on the river-borne breeze! A number of native wild roses grow out here on the shore, and I have difficulty distinguishing them as to species. (Rosa virginanaRosa blanda? Rosa carolina?) But, as it has been said, "A rose by any other name would small as sweet." So I simple enjoy their fragrance and their beauty as an immediate experience, without the intervention of a name between the rose and me.

But other creatures approach the roses with other than aesthetic experience as a goal: the hoverfly seeking pollen and nectar, the crab spider seeking prey.  I hope the little fly had at least a wee taste of sweetness before it became the spider's dinner!

Although this next flower, Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula var. reptans), is really tiny, it makes its presence known by growing in great numbers, sprinkled across the damp sand like stars in the sky. This Hudson shore is one of the very few places I can count on finding it.

Here's another plant that thrives on sandy shores, but higher up where the sand is dry.  It's called Canada Frostweed (Crocanthemum canadense), and although it is quite showy in early summer, it's at its most interesting on the first sub-freezing mornings in fall, if the mornings are snowless and still. That's when its stems split from the cold and release lovely curls of frothy frozen sap through the cracks in the stem. It was looking very sunny now, bright yellow and with orange-tipped anthers that always seem to flop to one side.

Even after witnessing all these other fancy flowers,  I was nevertheless smitten with the Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare) teeming along the pathway back to the road.  This is a very common wildflower of weedy sites, but it's still a native (if also circumboreal) plant. I just love its unique structure, with adorable pinky-purple florets sprouting up from wreathes of spiky bracts.

A Powerline Clearcut near Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park

This photo of the power-line clearcut in question is several years old, taken not long after the power company sprayed herbicides beneath the poles, attempting to keep any sapling trees from growing tall enough to interfere with the lines.  You can see all the browning dead plant material along the path. Before the spraying, my friend Sue Pierce and I would find Wood Lilies (Lilium philidelphicum) blooming by the dozens under these lines, just around the time of the summer solstice. It took several years before we found a single Wood Lily struggling to make a comeback, and every year since, we find a few more. The trail today has many small pines and spruces sprouting up, so we fear it won't be long before the plant-killing sprayers return. How many Wood Lilies could we count before the death-knell tolls again?

This photo shows Sue rejoicing as she counts the last two of the more than 40 Wood Lilies we found at this threatened site just this past week.

What a gorgeous native wildflower! I took a photo of each one we found, but each was just as beautiful as the last. So this one represents all those that shared this powerline this week.

Except for the poisonous applications, these powerline clearcuts reproduce in many ways the woodland clearings that once would occur after forest fires, creating exactly the habitat that certain sun-loving native plants require.  One of those plants is the Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), and we found quite a few -- maybe 6? -- now opening their rose-colored fragrant buds in the two-hundred yards or so of trail we explored.

A second sun-loving milkweed was also opening its buds, buds of the most brilliant orange of any other native plant we find in the wild, even brighter than the Wood Lilies.

Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is another sun-lover blooming now, and we were delighted to find its pretty peppermint-candy-striped blooms.

We weren't the only ones to delight in the frothy-white multi-floret blooms of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).  The shrubs were a veritable Grand Central Station for all kinds of pollinators: bees, flies, beetles, wasps, and this one lovely butterfly. To my naked eye, the butterfly appeared coal black.  But when I used my camera's flash (as Sue suggested), it turned out to be quite a colorful creature.  I can see that it's tailed, that it's small, that it's dark, and that it has red and blue spots.  But I could not find any images to match it in my butterfly guide. Suggestions as to its ID would be welcome.

UPDATE: In her comment to this post, Sue Pierce tells us the name of this pretty butterfly: Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus).  Thanks, Sue!

None of this clearcut's flowers I've shown so far is classified as a rare species in New York State.  But this next one, sadly, now is.  And it didn't used to be.  This is American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), now rated as Rare (S3) in New York as its former habitat is taken over by the introduced and invasive Oriental Bittersweet. Although the berries of both species look quite similar -- bright red encased in a splitting orange husk -- the flowers and berries of American Bittersweet are all borne as terminal clusters, while those of the alien species are borne in the leaf axils along the vines.  There is an abundant patch of our American Bittersweet along this powerline, and I'm happy to report that it seems to be expanding every year. Let's hope that it will be impervious to the next applications of herbicide.  I wonder if it would be possible to forbid the power company to spray where rare plants are known to grow?

Thanks to some helpful Facebook friends, I learned only recently how rare this next plant is, even though I had seen its gracefully arching seedpods for years, but just didn't know what to call it. Turns out it is Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis), and it is classified as a Threatened species (S2) in New York State. When a state rare-plant monitor visited here in 2019, we found over 150 specimens of Green Rock Cress at two locations in Moreau Lake State Park, 50 of them right along this powerline clearcut.  Could this be another reason to ask the power company to find another way besides poisoning plants to keep its lines free of tree-branch interference?

Many mosses and lichens just love the sun-baked sandy soil of this powerline clearcut.  This Haircap Moss and British Soldiers Lichen provided a patch of brilliant color.

After walking the powerline trail above Mud Pond, we next made our way down to the shore of the pond, which was now full of Fragrant Water Lilies.  They were a bit far out on the pond for my camera's zoom to capture in a clear photo, but these pretty pink tufts of Water Smartweed (Persicaria amphibia) were close enough to shore to that we could admire them.

We have many different species of Bedstraw (Galium spp.),  but most have four petals to their flowers.  These tiny flowers had only three, so I'm guessing this is Three-petaled Bedstraw (G. tinctorium), known to prefer the edges of lakes and ponds.

Since the day was still young, we decided to cross Spier Falls Road to explore the same powerline as it continued north.  On the way, we stopped to appreciate the impressive presence of these softball-sized golden puffs, the huge dandelion-like seedheads belonging to the non-native plant called Yellow Goat's Beard (Tragopogon pratensis).

In the hot, dry, sandy soil across the road, more dandelion-like flowers had found a happy home, except these were as minuscule as the Goatsbeards were enormous.  These tiny flowers are actually called Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica), but unlike the lawn-weed Dandelion, these wee ones are actually native.

As the sun reached its zenith, we soon sought shelter under the nearby pines that line this clearcut. And here in the shade of those pines we found dozens of Pipsissewa plants (Chimaphila umbellata) only now coming into bloom. Just one more beautiful native wildflower that somehow survives the harsh -- and occasionally poisoned -- habitat under the lines.

One last treat awaited us before we headed over to Moreau Lake proper to picnic along the shore.  Sue had discovered this baby Eastern Hognose Snake sheltering under a shrub.  This cute little baby tried to scare us away by flattening its head and swelling its body and raising the tip of its tail to look like a rattler's. Since I know that Hognose Snakes cannot bite me, having teeth only in the back of the throat for securing toads as they swallow them, I wasn't afraid it could hurt me.  I didn't harass it beyond moving the grass for a better photo, because I did not want it to release a terrible stench that would spoil the rest of my day. After we all had a chance to admire it, we left it in peace and happily went on our way.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Sunlight and Shade: Two Habitats and Some Plants That Thrive There

This past week my friend Sue and I set out to explore two quite different habitats: sandy-soiled powerline clearcuts under the blazing sun, and the deep-green shade and rich soil of the mid-summer woods. We found a very different group of plants at each location.

The Palmertown Ridge Powerline

Our first stop was at Moreau Lake State Park, ascending to the powerline that runs mid-slope along the Palmertown Mountain Ridge, accessed from the Spring Trailhead along Spier Falls Road. With the Summer Solstice approaching, our goal was to see if the Wood Lilies were blooming,  an annual quest for us.

Uh oh!  Looks like the power company has sprayed herbicide under the powerlines again!  Would this be the death knell for our lovely Wood Lilies?  Each time this happens, the lilies' abundance is reduced significantly, although they do return eventually in the years that follow, but in numbers quite diminished.  Would we find any at all today? Or ever again?  On the one hand, these powerline clearcuts create the very habitat that Wood Lilies and other forest-clearing wildflowers crave, but then come the sprayers with their deadly applications.  I sure wish they'd use goats instead to keep the tree seedlings from growing tall enough to interfere with the wires, and wait until the end of the growing season to employ the brush-eating herds. 

Some of the organisms up here don't seem affected by herbicide applications at all. For example, the fruticose lichen called Pink Earth Lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) persists through every kind of abuse, it seems. The path under the powerlines is covered in places with this lichen's pebbly gray-green thallus, hard as asphalt and as impervious to pounding feet as that paving material is. Even the tiny bubble-gum-pink fruiting bodies never seem to be affected by either foot-traffic or the spraying of plant poison.

Many grasses also thrive, seemingly unaffected. Perhaps they don't emerge until well after the herbicide application. One of my favorites is this Deer-tongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum), with its broad, sharply tapered leaves and flowering stems tipped with many tiny red flowers.

Here's a closer look at the tiny female flowers, like itty-bitty red Christmas trees.

The evergreen club mosses, too, seem unaffected.  Or at least, their reproduction efforts appear to continue unabated.  These tuning-fork-shaped spore stalks of Fan Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum) appeared quite healthy and vigorous, although many of the plants bore leaves that appeared to be withered and brown.

This Common Haircap Moss (Polytrichum commune) appeared to not be affected at all. Its leaves were bright green and its spore stalks numerous. Ancient life forms like this moss must have learned many survival strategies by now.

Ah, but we DID find some flowers! Acres of thriving Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) sprinkled the landscape with thousands of small bright-yellow flowers, borne on thread-fine stalks in tiers along the stems.

There were also abundant patches of bright-green Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) sprawling across the slopes.  And look what Sue is pointing her camera at!

We found one!  Can there be any wildflower more gorgeous than our native Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum) to announce the beginning of summer?  Our annual quest was met with success!

We celebrated our find by climbing further up the mountain, then making our way out to this rocky ledge overlooking the Hudson Valley, the higher peaks of the Adirondacks rising on the horizon. A cool breeze dried the sweat from our efforts as we sat on convenient rocky perches and enjoyed our picnic lunches. What a  perfect way to celebrate not only our beautiful floral find, but also the sweet and sunlit beginning of summer.

Cole's Woods in Glens Falls: The Powerline Clearcut
Another day, another powerline. This one runs through the many-acred, otherwise wooded lands of Cole's Woods, right in the heart of the city of Glens Falls. I believe that Sue is standing stock-still, attempting to take a photo of a butterfly.  Lots and lots of insects were flying about this sunlit trail today, most of them fascinating, hardly a one annoying.

One of the most abundant blooming plants at this site was one I had never recorded before. I bet I have encountered it many times before, though, and just assumed it was another Fleabane I'd seen many times.  But this time I took a closer look at those very narrow leaves.  No teeth! And the almost invisible hairs on the stem were lying flat on the stems and pointing upward.  I thumbed through my Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, but found no drawing of the species I thought it might be: the Lesser Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron strigosus). A description was there, however, and it seemed to fit.  Further research when I got home confirmed my original guess.

Here's a flower that's almost impossible to photograph successfully, all parts in focus, with that squat flower cluster and long skinny seed stalks. The flower is surely a cute little thing, called Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica).

I would say it is obvious why this tiny native wildflower got named "Dwarf Dandelion."

Here was a grass with remarkably pretty flowers -- for a grass! I have been informed that this is Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis), a species of the "true grass" family.  It is native to Europe, but it was introduced to North America for grassland habitat rehabilitation and for use as a forage plant. I have read that it has made an extensive impact on the native grasslands of North America, becoming established by invading disturbed prairies and through repeated introductions for soil retention and livestock graze. Thankfully, I found only a few isolated specimens in the disturbed soil under this powerline.

That Smooth Brome may be invasive, but this next plant, called Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis) is actually a rare native Mustard-family plant, listed as a Threatened species in New York State. I recognized it right away by its gracefully arching seedpods and the many pairs of leaves along the stem.  A couple of years ago, a state rare-plant monitor and I counted nearly 200 specimens of this rare plant at several locations in Moreau Lake State Park. Sue and I counted over 25 plants at this location under the Cole's Woods powerline.

Here's a shrub that comes into bloom at just the right time, as Independence Day approaches. This is called New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus),  a plant that is native to North America. Its flower clusters, with those star-shaped buds that explode into bright-white florets,  remind me of the exploding   fireworks that burst into fountains of stars in the sky on the Fourth of July. This shrub thrives in the sandy low-nutrient soil under this powerline, although it tends to do best in the partial shade at the edge of the open spaces.

It was hard to miss this brilliantly white flower among the taller grasses out under the sky.  This is a native wild morning glory called Low Bindweed (Calystegia spithamaea), and unlike its cousin, Hedge Bindweed, its leafy stem grows no longer than what you see here.  Its flower was so blindingly white in the sunlight, it was difficult to capture any detail of its structure in a photograph, but I think you can see that its flower closely resembles that of a Morning Glory.

Cole's Woods in Glens Falls: The Deeply Shaded Forest
Again, my friend Sue and I were on a quest: to find some One-sided Pyrola (Orthilia secunda) in one of the few places we know it to grow.   And here in this deeply shaded woods with its maze of trails, Sue knew exactly where to find it, and she led me directly there.

Ta da!  There they were!  Dozens and dozens of One-sided Pyrola plants, everywhere we looked! But only if we looked in a limited part of the woods. We have our own name for this part of the woods -- Pyrola-ville -- for it's here we find three species of pyrolas (Shinleaf, Green-flowered, and One-sided) growing abundantly. 

I must note, however that One-sided Pyrola is no longer considered a member of the Pyrola genus, but now has been placed in the genus Orthilia, where it is the only member. An interesting feature of this plant is that it obtains about one half of its carbon from mycorrhizal networks. Mycorrhizal fungi obtain carbon through the roots of nearby trees. Orthilia then obtains the carbon from the fungi through its roots. No counterflow of nutrients has been observed.

I wonder how many other of the plants that thrive in such deep shade also obtain nutrients through mycorrhizal networks.  Even though most plants of the forest floor have green leaves, the light in the woods is so dim,  once the canopy closes, it would seem that the plants' green leaves would have quite a job photosynthesizing adequate nutrients.  Perhaps being evergreen, continuing to photosynthesize even in winter, might be the way they manage.  Also, simply carpeting most of the forest floor with your evergreen leaves would be a nutrient-obtaining strategy. Perhaps that's how this next plant, called Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) manages to be so prolific. It was blooming now, and the bright-white twinned flowers looked extra beautiful, paired as they were with the over-wintered red berries that shared their woody vines. Note that the twinned flowers are joined at the base to a single ovary.  I know of no other plant that requires two flowers to produce one fruit, and both flowers must be pollinated in order to do so.

There were other evergreen flowering plants in this part of the woods, and I have never seen anywhere else such a proliferation of Pipsissewa plants (Chimaphila umbellata) as thrive here in uncountable numbers.  Each plant was dangling pink-tinged buds at present, but by next week, those buds should be open, revealing the thousands of waxy-white down-facing flowers now tucked within those spherical buds. It will be quite a sight to see. 

Here's one last flower we visited in Cole's Woods today, called Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica), and it was just coming into bloom, with only a couple of florets open.  Again, this plant thrives in abundant numbers here, and it will be putting on quite a show over the next couple of weeks, joined by its fellow denizens of this deeply shaded woods.

Sue and I had one final delight as we made our way out of Cole's Woods.  As we neared a Black Elderberry shrub (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) that was bearing flat clusters of flower buds, a flash of bright color glowed from within the twigs. Peering closer, we found this gorgeous beetle, all shimmering with dark-blue glitter and adorned with a wide band of brilliant orange.  Since it seemed to be eating the leaves of this elderberry shrub, a quick Google search for "elderberry-eating beetle with orange band" brought the answer to its identity right away: the Elderberry Borer (Desmocerus palliatus).

From reading up about the Elderberry Borer on the internet, I learned that it is quite unusual to find one of these gorgeous beetles, since their numbers are not enormous.  In fact, because of their scarcity, they are not known to cause any significant damage to Elderberry shrubs; they simply do not occur in large enough numbers to wreak havoc, according to one site I visited.  Neither Sue nor I had ever seen one before (and you know we are always looking for bugs!).  One more reason to call this our lucky day!