Friday, April 29, 2022

Bedrock, Early Bloomers, and Bugs

What with birthday-cake baking and present shopping, houseguests arriving, dentist appointments, etc., etc. this past week, I haven't had time to post an extensive blog. But I do want to share these photos of flowers, taken early this week in a beautiful area of the Palmertown Mountain Range in Moreau . The spring wildflower rush is upon us now, and by next week so many more flowers will be blooming, these will seem like old news by then.  And they deserve to be celebrated now!  

There's a trail that leads up to the heights of the Palmertown Mountains at the northern boundary of Saratoga County, but my favorite spot along this trail is right where the trail begins to sharply ascend. Old lady with bad knees that I am, I don't go higher, but I linger here in this stream-crossed sunlit area, surrounded by impressive bedrock and boulders, delighting in the masses of wildflowers blooming now and soon, including many lime-lovers. Must be some marble in those rocks, or emerging in springs that water the rocks or join the streams that tumble down the mountain slopes. 

Uncountable numbers of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) abound in this spot so thickly, it is hard to walk without stepping on them. This pretty pink-striped, pink-anthered, early-blooming wildflower has certainly earned its vernacular name of Spring Beauty. It's amazing to watch the bees visiting these lovely flowers and then flying off with pollen baskets colored pink from the pollen gathered here.  

In fact, there's a particular species of bee, called the Spring Beauty Miner (Adrena eriginiae), that my friend Sue Pierce managed to get an amazing photo of:

Photo by Sue Pierce

My friend Sue and I found many, many mounds of Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) leaves at this site, but only a few were blooming yet. I was grateful to find some with dark shade behind the blooms, the better to show off their pantaloon shape.

The Hepatica Festival continues, well into its third week now since the fur-covered buds first released the lovely blooms, usually in more muted colors than the two pictured here. It's rare to find the flowers so vividly colored, so these gorgeous magenta Sharp-lobed Hepatica blooms (Hepatica acutiloba) really stood out against the leaf litter. This species of Hepatica is known to prefer a calcareous habitat, and other lime-loving plants at this site -- Canada Violets, Plantain-leaved Sedge, and Maidenhair Fern -- attest to that soil chemistry. 

Quite unusual for Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), there was only this one single flower along the trail. This lovely flower usually blooms -- ah, too briefly! -- in groups. Maybe that's why this bee was loathe to leave this solitary pollen provider and stayed put for the picture-taking. 

Here was another critter that stayed around for the picture-taking. This cute little tachinid fly (a nectar-eating fly of the kind I call "bristly butts") landed on my finger and spent a considerable amount of time walking back and forth, dabbing its "tongue" on my sweat-dampened skin.  I know that the adults of these important pest-controlling insects (their larvae consume many destructive insect pests) like to sip sweet flower nectar, but in this case the fly appeared to be sipping my sweat.  Maybe it likes salty as well as sweet.

I was disappointed not to find the beautiful lime-loving Canada Violets blooming yet, but two other violets, notable for being early bloomers, had opened their beautiful flowers.  The bright-yellow blooms of Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia) were easy to spot among the leaf litter.  This violet is known to abound in the Adirondacks, but I rarely find it in the lowland woods I usually haunt. But this site in the Palmertown mountains is actually within the same eco-range as the Adirondacks, so it was not such a surprise to find it here.

These tiny white violets are probably the Northern White species (Viola pallens), due to their tiny size, roundish leaves, and early bloom-time.  I have difficulty distinguishing them from other small early white violets, so I'm glad my life doesn't depend on being correct. By whatever name they might be called, I was delighted to find them blooming abundantly along the trail. 

For a preview of the floral feast that's just beginning now, I stopped on my way home along Spier Falls Road to search among the rocky ledges lining the road for a plant that's soon to turn these ledges into amazing rock gardens.  Sure enough, the Early Saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) was very close to opening its clusters of tiny white blooms among the moss-covered cracks and crevices in the rock.  Red Trilliums will soon follow, joined by Shadblow Trees with their drifts of snowy flowers, and shortly after that, the deep-pink, super-fragrant blooms of Early Azalea will be spilling over these cliffs. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Woodland Understory Aglow!


It's a magical time in the woods right now, as the Striped Maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) can be seen throughout the understory raising their large candle-flame buds vertically from spreading branches, so the woodlands almost seem to be strung with Christmas lights. 

The fat pink-blushed buds, emerging from deep-red budscales, are napped with down-fine hairs that reflect the light with a pearlescent glow. And the branches themselves have a beauty all their own, often colored a deep maroon or a forest green,  braceleted with pale rings along their length. 

In early spring, the terminal twigs of Striped Maples are topped with three-lobed pearlescent buds emerging from deep-red scales. They remind me of royal scepters.

In just a week or so, those fat pink buds will open to release the large green baby leaves.

And then it will look as if flocks of green-winged pink birds were flitting through the forest:

As summer arrives, greenish-yellow Striped Maple flowers will dangle and dance in the breeze, as lovely as the ornaments in a geisha's elaborate hairdo.

Dangling clusters of seeds are soon to follow, providing a generous source of food for many woodland animals.

Next come the yellow Striped Maple leaves in the fall, so bright that even on dark rainy autumn days, the forest seems to glow as if bathed in sunlight.

Even the bark of Striped Maple trees offer surprising color, like these radiant blue stripes in the otherwise grayish bark of a young specimen. There's a reason this Acer species acquired the vernacular name of Striped Maple.

But the biggest surprise about the Striped Maple is the startlingly vivid scarlet its branches sometimes turn in the winter.  Not every specimen of this tree displays this remarkable color, truly vibrant against the snowy woods.  But I know of thickets where every single tree demonstrates this trait.  It's truly something to see!

I hope this post has made it obvious that Striped Maple is truly a gorgeous understory tree in every season.  But to me, it reaches its peak of marvelousness right now in early spring, before the surrounding trees and shrubs leaf out to hide its branches, those branches now adorned by big pink pearlescent buds. Go look for it now, and be prepared to be stunned by its elegance.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Some Early Bloomers, Often Overlooked

No point in going out today to look for spring wildflowers.  They'd all be buried under a couple of inches of snow, although thankfully, rising temps and a brisk wind are making short work of that snow. And I DID get out yesterday (a balmier day), to the middle section of the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail here in Saratoga Springs.  I like to enter this trail from a spur accessed through the Meadowbrook Estates residential area, for this spur leads directly to a boardwalk that crosses a wildflower-rich swamp.

I particularly like this entrance because both Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) and False Hellebore (Veratrim viride) grow here side-by-side, right next to the boardwalk, so it's easy to notice the differences in their leaves. Although the two might be mistaken for each other from a distance this time of year, a closer view reveals that the narrower False Hellebore leaves have parallel veins, while the veins of the broader Skunk Cabbage leaves are pinnate, with smaller veins projecting to the side from a large mid-vein. As spring proceeds into summer, the False Hellebore will eventually tower over the Skunk Cabbage and bear clusters of small yellow-green lily-like flowers at the top of tall stems.

I came here hoping to find Marsh Marigold opening its gorgeous big yellow blooms in the wetter areas of this swamp, but no such luck!  I saw clumps of their broad green leaves, but no flowers as yet. I did find a few other flowers in bloom, but most were so small or non-showy as to usually be overlooked by the casual observer.

I'm glad I know where a few Leatherwood shrubs (Dircus palustris) grow near the trail, for it certainly would be easy to miss their small yellow trumpet-shaped blooms dangling from furry brown buds, if you weren't standing within a few feet of them.

The same is true for the tiny yellow-green flowers of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a few just emerging now from the globular buds that cling tightly to the shrub's slender twigs.

But I bet those two shrub-borne flowers are noticed more frequently than the almost-invisible blooms of Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum).  This plant's small, round, glossy-green leaves are easy enough to find, since sprawling masses of them often grow in shallow wetlands, earning them the alternate vernacular name of Water Carpet. But you have to bend down to take a close look to discover the tiny, red-dotted circular flowers. The red dots are the pistillate organs of the flowers, and eventually some even tinier yellow dots, the pollen-bearing staminate organs, will emerge as well. The flowers I found yesterday displayed only the red pistillate parts.

And talk about RED!  These tiny red flowers strewn all over the forest floor are the flowers of Red Maple trees (Acer rubrum).  I believe these are all staminate flowers, shed by the tree once they have released their pollen on the wind to pollinate the pistillate flowers that grow on separate trees. 

The only other flowers I found were those of grassy plants, neither of which is technically an actual "grass."  This clump of long slender green blades and yellow-stamened flowers is one of our woodland sedges.  It is possibly Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) because of its slender leaves, although I have read that that species of sedge prefers dry soils, even though it can tolerate wetter ones.  There are many, many sedges I cannot identify.  I usually do recognize sedge flowers when I see them, though, with their tufts of tousled yellow stamens atop slender angled stems, with white thread-like pistils sprouting lower down on the stems.

Although these umbellate flowers atop slender stems are protruding from clusters of narrow green leaves, this is not a sedge, but rather a wood rush.  This is Hairy Wood Rush (Luzula acuminata), to be specific. I believe the fine hairs that suggested this plant's vernacular name are quite evident, even from this distance.  

Only the pistillate parts of this Hairy Wood Rush were protruding today, prepared to receive pollen from other nearby plants.  Eventually, the sepals will open to reveal the ring of stamens within, ready to shed their own pollen on the air to fertilize neighboring plants. When I first saw the open flowers of this wood rush, I thought they were some kind of miniature lily! (I took this photo below one year when I was lucky to find this plant at this stage.)

Oh wait!  I DID find one flower that most folks would recognize as looking like a real "flower," and that was a single plant of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana).  There were many other plants of this beautiful native wildflower growing in the same area, but only this one had come into bloom as yet.  My lucky day! 

And here was another lucky find.  A fungus, though, not a flower.  I call it "lucky" because I have never found this mushroom, Xeromphalina campanella, fruiting so generously, except in the fall, not in spring. Its scientific name means something like "little bell-shaped dry belly button," which is indeed kind of descriptive. One of its vernacular names is "Fuzzy Foot," which is also descriptive if you can find the fuzzy mass of mycelia surrounding the bottom of its stem (usually well hidden).  By whatever name it is called, I am always delighted to find its masses of tiny bright-colored disks decorating the rotting wood of fallen logs. The thick green carpet of Broom Moss certainly added to the charm of this find.

Here's a closer look at Xeromphalina campanella, revealing how adorably cute its teeny tiny mushrooms can be.

Friday, April 15, 2022

A Really Early Violet, Two Varieties

We haven't seen our native Common Blue Violet around here quite yet, although I do see their baby leaves poking up from my greening-up grass already.  Before long, they'll be adorning every alley and yet-unmowed lawn with their beautiful purple blooms, which (despite their native wildflower status) are not always appreciated by turf-grass purists or exotic-plant gardeners.  I happen to adore them and wish they would quickly supplant every blade of useless grass that remains in what I call my multi-flowered "lawn."  In the meantime, another beautiful species of violet has come into bloom, and today I hurried off to a local woods to admire them.

Although I admit to being a native-plant snob, I can't help loving the non-native English Violets (Viola odorata) that come into bloom almost as soon as the frost is out of the ground. For one thing, they've hardly proven to be invasive, since the two widely separated patches I've been observing for over 25 years have hardly spread at all.  An equally lovable asset about these violets is their heavenly fragrance, a trait sadly missing from many of our native violets. This fragrance is equally present in both varieties, white ones and purple ones.

The first small patch I visited consists solely of the white variety.  And these blooms are indeed purely white from the front, although (as this photo reveals) they do have purple spurs.

From the front, the blooms are absolutely white, without a blush or a tinge of purple.  Note too, the absence of dark veining on the petals, a feature of almost every other species of violet, native or introduced. Another distinguishing trait is a distinctively hooked style (which is barely visible in this photo but can better be seen in my photos below of the purple variety).

When I approached the second patch of English Violets (the purple variety) quite some distance away, I felt a jolt of dismay.  I had always found abundant numbers of them along a roadside ditch on the west side of Saratoga, but since my last visit, a huge White Pine had toppled across their patch. My sought-after violets now lay under a tangle of bark and branches that was underlaid by heaps of pine needles and sawdust nearly a foot thick. Not a single violet protruded from this mess.  Happily, though, some patches of them were blooming away at the edge of an adjacent woods.  Some sunlight reached them there, lighting up the vivid purple of their blooms.

Here's a photo that better displays the distinctive hooked style, a feature that is present in both color varieties of English Violet, the white and the purple.

And oh, that fragrance!  I could detect their sun-warmed scent even from a standing position. But I then knelt down to pick a small nosegay of them. Normally, I would never pick a flower I find in the wild, but these were growing in a trash-littered roadside ditch vulnerable to many abuses.  And as I have experienced, violets (both native and introduced) keep producing more flowers, the more the flowers are picked.  I would not be surprised to learn that these English Violets were planted here long ago to provide Victorian-era ladies the nosegays they carried to ward off the odors produced by the horse-drawn carriages that carried those ladies through these very woods. Incredibly, this tiny bouquet will perfume the entire room I will place it in.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sixteen Ways Of Looking At Hepatica

My friend Sue has volunteered to lead a wildflower walk in the woods at Skidmore College this week, so I joined her on a scouting mission Monday afternoon, hoping to find lots of pretty spring wildflowers to show our friends when they walk this woods on Thursday.  Well, we can promise they will find LOTS of flowers, but unless this midweek warmth summons other species to bloom, those flowers will all be Hepatica -- both Sharp-lobed and Round-lobed species, but all Hepaticas. But that doesn't mean the flowers will all look alike. One of the wonderful qualities of this earliest-blooming native wildflower, is that it comes in so many different colors.  Here's just a sampling of those we found Monday, as well as a few examples of other color variations, found at Skidmore and other places nearby.

The first flowers we found were hidden within fur-covered buds just a few days ago, but now they had opened wide into lavender gorgeousness, their lovely color amplified by how they sparkled in the sunlight. 

Here were more of a similar color, but these presented more of a bi-color look, as their lavender sepals faded to sparkling white at the center.  What look like petals are actually colorful sepals, for Hepaticas do not have petals. And these sepals can number more than the six you see here.

Here, for example, was a row of pale pink blooms,  displaying  seven to nine sepals. This linear  arrangement of posy-topped stems brought to my mind the "pretty maids all in a row" of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary's" garden. The tachinid fly, a pollen-eating species, was probably attracted more by the pollen than the beauty.  But maybe both! They do have big eyes to see with.

How to describe this glowing color? Is it purplish or pinkish?  Or shades of both? Whatever hue we call it by, the colors seemed incandescent on the shady forest floor.

Here was a blooming cluster of purest white, the flowers startling in their brilliance against the dark moss-covered boulder.

More pinky-purple blooms, but these with their color beautifully arrayed against the Morocco red of the sharp-lobed leaves.  The leaves we see on Hepatica plants this time of year all were formed last year, and they have retained their beautiful colors throughout the winter, under the snow.  These leaves will fade as the flowers go to seed and this year's new leaves arise.

A portion of the trail we followed led us below a steep forested hillside. Abundant Hepatica plants were tucked in among the rocks on the hill, and because of the slope, the afternoon sunlight shone through their translucent leaves, rendering them as ruby a red as that of stained glass. 

All the Hepaticas Sue and I found on our walk were adorned with flowers of a rather muted color. But over the years, both here at Skidmore and in other woods nearby, I have found this native wildflower in more vibrant colors.  This richly deep-purple one was blooming in the Skidmore woods just a year ago. Maybe we will discover it again this week.

This deep magenta one I found on the shore of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park a couple of years ago.  Such an intensely vivid color!  I have returned to the same location each year since to search it out, but have never found it again.  I wonder, do the same plants produce flowers of the same color every year?  Or do their flowers vary in color from year to year?

Here's another remarkably vivid beauty, sky-blue fading to cloud-white, looking quite luminous, as if the flowers were lit from within.  These were growing on the edge of a wooded swamp south of Ballston Spa.

This flower was as misty-pale as those last three were deeply vibrant.  And the flower was small, even smaller than its fur-covered bud scales. It seemed to me such a tender, infant-like flower, I wanted to give it a little kiss. We can see, though, by its developing pistils and stamens, that it's getting ready to do very grown-up things!

And here is the Raving Beauty of them all!  Snowy-white sepals, each one edged with a vivid rosy purple.  Wow!  A few years back, these remarkable blooms called to me from a forested plot along the Zim Smith Bike Trail south of Ballston Spa, and I could hardly believe my eyes.  A fence with a "No Trespassing" sign tried to prevent me from taking a closer look but, as this photo attests, it didn't!  I'm awfully glad that I risked arrest in order to photograph this beauty, though.  I've peered through that fence many times since then, but this particular plant with its unique color pattern has never appeared again.  Except in my photo files.

We wildflower enthusiasts are extremely grateful to Hepaticas, for delivering such beautiful blooms to our flower-starved gaze so early each spring.  But even after the blooms have faded, Hepaticas keep on delivering one kind of beauty after another.  Just as its colorful sepals fade and its flowers are forming seeds, new glossy-green leaves spring from the ground, creating graceful leafy mounds among the brown woodland duff.

And those chartreuse spiky seedpods, nestled within a ruff of spring-green bracts, are as lovely in their own way as their floral forebears were in theirs. This particular seedpod happened to get caught in a notch of a newly formed leaf, an accidental placement that amplifies the beauty of each.

And those lovely leaves just keep being lovely, all winter long, some growing even lovelier as their color changes to shades of red.  I took this photo of Sharp-lobed Hepatica leaves in late October, and I can tell how cold it was that day by how shriveled were the leaves of the Atrichum undulatum moss the leaves are resting on. This is an evergreen moss, but it does shrivel up when the weather turns dry and cold. The Hepatica leaves do not, though.

And finally, as Winter ends and Spring approaches,  Hepatica can hardly wait to re-awaken.  Snow may still lie in the forest's shady hollows and temperatures may still fall below freezing each night, but the flower buds start pushing up from the barely unfrozen ground, well before any other signs of new life can be found. Both the gracefully arching stems and the tightly closed bud scales are covered with fine down, a woolly bunting worn to protect the baby flowers within. And when those furry bud scales begin to open, even the still-closed flowers have a beauty all their own.