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 virginana
? Rosa 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.