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, 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!


The Furry Gnome said...

Sounds like you had a number of interesting sightings on those days!

Woody Meristem said...

What a botanical treasure-trove! And, that bx-elder borer is absolutely beautiful.