Sunday, May 29, 2022

Protected Plants on the Powerline

At a casual glance, this sandy-soiled powerline clearcut just north of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park doesn't exactly look like a hotbed of rare plants. But it is.  And thanks to efforts by Casey Holzworth, Natural Resource Steward for our region's state parks, those plants will no longer have to endure periodic herbicide applications by the power company, intended to keep trees from interfering with the lines. After a number of state-protected plants were reported from this site,  Casey met with a National Grid supervising forester, who consented to allow the park to assume vegetation management for the stretch of trail visible in this photo, which is where most of the plants requiring protection are known to grow.  I visited this stretch today, curious to see how our rare and otherwise protected plants were doing.

I didn't have to search very long to find the first Rare plant, our native American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) with its flowers now in bud. An abundant patch lies close to the trail, easily accessed from a nearby parking area.  

Formerly common throughout our region, this vine is growing ever rarer as it becomes supplanted by the aggressively invasive Oriental Bittersweet.  Our native Bittersweet can be distinguished most easily from the non-native invader by how it bears its flowers and fruits in terminal clusters, rather than in the leaf axils along the vine. The buds shown in this photo will open shortly into small yellow-white five-petaled flowers, followed by scarlet berries in the fall.  The vines at this site have nothing to climb on, so they sprawl on the ground.  I sometimes think I should go put a trellis there.

As I descended the sandy path toward the pond, I began to find the first of dozens of plants of Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis), rated as a Threatened species in New York.  Although its small white four-petaled flowers look very much like those of other Mustard Family plants, its slender, arching seed pods are its most distinctive field mark. As this photo reveals, those arching seed pods (called "siliques") have already begun to form and acquire their distinctive profile. 

In the past, I have found Green Rock Cress almost always as a solitary plant, so I was quite surprised to find this thick cluster of individual stems growing so closely together.

As it happened today, a similar Mustard Family plant called Tower Mustard (Turritis glabra) was also blooming nearby.  Tower Mustard is a quite common native species, and I placed a stalk of it next to a plant of Green Rock Cress to display how these two tall slender plants with very similar small white flowers actually differ substantially.

 Even at a glance, it is obvious how the siliques appear vastly different, even though both are long and slender. Those of the Green Rock Cress are flexible and arch away from the stem in graceful curves, while those of the Tower Mustard are stiff, and they cling closely to the plant's stem as they point directly upward. And while both species bear terminal clusters of small white flowers, only the Tower Mustard will bear more flowers from the leaf axils along the stem.

The leaves are also an important clue.  The Green Rock Cress will have at least 30 minutely-toothed sessile leaves crowding its smooth green stem.  Also, the leaves and stem are a clear green, with no whitish bloom on them.

The Tower Mustard has many fewer non-toothed leaves so closely clasping a glaucous stem they appear to almost completely wrap it.  Note, too, the frosted-green color of the leaves, which are also touched with purple, and the flower buds emerging from the leaf axils.

Here is one more plant under these powerlines that is classified by New York State as "Rare", our native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  I do see this plant in many other places around Saratoga County besides this, so I had no idea it was considered a rare plant until I checked the New York Flora Association Plant Atlas. We do have very sandy soil in this county, which is exactly the kind of low-nutrient habitat that this species prefers, so that might account for its abundance locally.  It also prefers burned-over sites, and the Plant Atlas suggests that it may be decreasing in abundance as fires are prevented.  I have often thought that the clear-cut areas under powerlines do resemble the clearings caused by forest fire, so it should not be surprising that Wild Lupine likes it here. That's one more reason to rejoice that herbicides will no longer poison the wildflowers under these powerlines!

If I want to find this next wildflower, the Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), I often visit this powerline near Mud Pond,  where this beautiful native orchid grows in abundance.  But I find it not out under the power lines, but rather back toward the edge of the pine woods that lines the trail here.  Although this plant is not state-listed as "Rare," it is, as are all our native orchids, a protected species in New York, classified as "Exploitably Vulnerable".

This year, I was astounded to see how the Pink Lady's Slipper population had extended quite a way out into the clear-cut area, establishing new territory among the mats of Big Redstem Moss, where it certainly appeared to be thriving.

Some of the plants bore flowers of a deep vibrant pink.

Other plants bore flowers of a paler pink.

There are many other interesting and beautiful plants that have found a home in this sunny dry habitat,  plants that, while they may not be legally classified as rare, certainly do deserve to be protected.  Probably the most spectacular of these is our native Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum).  

A population of these beautiful lilies still manages to persist at this site, despite periodic doses of herbicide that reduce their numbers drastically.  Somehow, the flowers manage to struggle back after a year or two following their poisoning.  Our hope is that, with the park now selectively clearing the young trees mechanically instead of the power company destroying all plants chemically,  this site may yet once again be restored to Wood Lily Paradise.

And of course, a Wood Lily Paradise would be a heaven for all the native wildflowers that share this powerline clearcut.  It sure would be lovely to see the currently sparse population of Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) expand to waft its incredible fragrance on the air.  And also to offer its leaves to the larvae of Monarch Butterflies.

The same would be true for a second milkweed that could thrive here more abundantly than it does now, the brilliant-orange, aptly named Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), seen here sharing its space with another plant much desired by native pollinators,  the white-flowered shrub called New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).

Did I mention that Butterfly Weed was aptly named?  This lovely little American Copper Butterfly attests to that!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Lupines, Lady's Slippers, and More!

 It's Wild Lupine time at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park right now, a floral extravaganza not to be  missed!

At every turn of the trails at the Gick Farm Parcel of this preserve, another spectacular floral vista appears.  

This gorgeous native wildflower (Lupinus perennis is its scientific name) is very much at home in the nutrient-poor soils of this sandy, oak-pine savanna habitat. As is true for all members of the Pea Family (Fabaceae), lupines can provide for their own nutritional needs by “fixing” nitrogen, thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium that takes excess nitrogen from the soil.  This nitrogen is then stored in nodules on the lupine roots.

While Wild Lupine occurs spontaneously at many other sandy-soiled locations throughout Saratoga County, this plant gets a special population boost at this preserve, where seeds are planted and the lands are managed to provide habitat for the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.   While the adult Karner Blues can feed on any nectar-producing flower, the larvae can eat only the leaves of our eastern Wild Lupine. I saw none of the brown-winged females today (perhaps this year's first generation has already laid its eggs and died), but I did see a very few blue-winged males, such as this one feeding on a Blackberry flower.

This photo reveals how very sandy the soil is at this Gick Farm Parcel.  I followed the trail into the shady woods, where pines predominated.

If you want to find Pink Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), one of our most beautiful native orchids, there's no better place to look than a pine woods with sandy soil.  I had only stepped a few yards into the woods when I saw so many Pink Lady's Slippers it was difficult to count them all!

Wow!  Just, wow!  I saw so many Pink Lady's Slippers, each one seeming to be more beautiful than the last.

They were just as beautiful from the rear as from the front!

And nothing could enhance the beauty of the Lady's Slippers more than being surrounded by masses of blooming Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).

Nor could any flower enhance the beauty of Canada Mayflower better than the lovely white blooms of Starflower (Lysimachea borealis), another abundant denizen of this pine woods.

Even the small, rather nondescript flowers of Tower Mustard (Turritus glabra) looked quite handsome today, the slender plants standing straight and tall, with acres of massed purple blooms serving as their foil.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Violets Galore on the River Shore

As I sit here sweltering in the over-90-degree heat today, I recall how sweetly cool it was along a northern stretch of a New York river just yesterday. My friends Sue Pierce and Ruth Brooks had joined me to explore these riverbanks, known to be home to some of our state's most remarkable plants, and we had come here to see how many we could find. When we first stepped foot on the shore and noticed the signs of recent flooding  -- the bent-over shrubs and flattened grasses and eroded sand -- we feared many flowers might have been destroyed.  But no, the plants that grow here are exactly attuned to just such riparian conditions, and we were delighted to find even some of the rarest plants doing just fine.

There is absolutely no doubt that our native Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is among our region's most beautiful flowers. It may not be a rare plant, but when it spreads multitudes of its scarlet blooms across a wide swath of riverbank, it is truly spectacular!

Dwarf Cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa) IS a rare plant, rated as a Threatened species in New York State, but you'd never guess that if you could see how abundantly it sprawls among the shoreline boulders. 

Heaps of winter ice along this shore help to keep invasive plants and taller woody species at bay, thereby allowing this sun-loving miniature tree to have lots of room to grow. While Dwarf Cherry's beauty may be  more subtle than that of the Columbine, its fragrance more than makes up for any dearth of showiness.

When we sought relief from the noonday sun beating on the shore, we stepped back into the woods for a few moments of cooling shade, and there we found abundant patches of one of our loveliest native woodland wildflowers, called Fringed Polygala (Polygaloides paucifolia).

Most people probably would never notice this very interesting plant we always make sure to visit at this site, a rather scraggly patch of green stuff clinging to the rocks called Selaginella rupestris, or Rock Spike Moss.  

Selaginella rupestris may look like a moss, but it's really more closely related to ferns than to mosses. I have read that plants of this genus are distinguished by having two different types of spore cones, and I wondered if the tiny yellow dots I could see here might be one of those types of spore cone.  When I googled "Selaginella spore cones," I did find an image that looked exactly like these yellow dots that I found tucked in among the leaves.

As we teetered along the cobble close to the water, we were delighted to find these pretty white violets tucked in among the rocks.  A number of white violets grow on this stretch of shore, but the narrow lance-shaped leaves of this one helped us put the correct name to it: Lance-leaved Violet (Viola lanceolata).

So what about this white violet? Its flowers look pretty much the same as those of the Lance-leaved Violet.  Ah yes, but the leaves were a bit broader, widening toward the stem. We were quite excited to find this Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia) close to where we had seen it in previous years, for not only is it a Threatened species in New York, it also is not known to occur in any state location close to this one. That doesn't mean that it doesn't occur, necessarily, only that no one has seen and collected a specimen and recorded its location. Also, our region's white violets are easy to confuse with one another, without close examination.

At last, we found some purple violets, and quite a lovely clump of them, too.  Their deep-purple color, furry oval leaves, and hairy stems led me to believe they must be Ovate-leaved Violets (Viola sagittata var. ovata), even though I had never seen that species grow in such multi-stemmed clusters. But since violets are known to hybridize freely, it's possible some other violet species has added its genes to this particular plant.

There certainly were other purple-flowered violets growing here on this shore.  How to tell them apart? My first impression of this one was how high the flowers were borne above their heart-shaped leaves on long slender stems.  Then I noticed how their purple color appeared to "bleed" toward the center. Then I peered into the throat of a bloom and saw how the tips of the hairs on the lateral petals were stubby, not tapering, and that was the clincher: What could this violet be but Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata)?

Here's a photo of what those "stubby" hairs look like:

It looked as if one of those Marsh Blue Violets did not mind being submerged by high water at all,  and continued blooming away while underwater.

OK, now, it looks as if Sue has found another purple violet, and this one sported a bit of a magenta tinge that signaled it was one worth stopping to photograph.

Yes, it sure was! There is only one of our violets that bears such distinctively long tapered leaves, along with very hairy stems and with even some hairiness on the surface of the flower petals, not just the throat.  And that violet, called the New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae), has been reported from no other New York location aside from this one. 

 Considering how ferocious the flooding can be along these shores, it's amazing that any plants could thrive in this apparently non-hospitable habitat, let alone one as seemingly delicate as this.  But we found such an abundant population this year, it appeared that perhaps such ferocious flooding might only help to spread the plants among the cobble, and once they are firmly rooted there, the rocks might help to protect them.  At any rate, this healthy clump looked very happy to be here.  We were certainly very happy to see it!

And of course, when one spends a lot of time looking closely at flowers, one is certain to find some of the critters that come to visit the plants.  I have no idea which insect molted this long-tailed, striped-abdomen exoskeleton perched atop a Bluet bloom. It's probably one I know very well, but whose nymph stage has been hidden from me. If anyone recognizes it, please tell us its name in a comment.  Such a fascinating creature deserves a name!  (UPDATE: see the Stonefly adult in the photo later on!)

I don't know the name of this one, either, other than it's likely one of the clubtail dragonflies.  It had just emerged from its nymph stage and probably has not acquired its mature coloration. Nor its ability to fly, as yet, which is why I was able to lift it closer for observation. I expect it was observing me, too, out of those Army-green eyes!

I do know that this is a Stonefly resting atop a Striped Maple leaf, recognizable from the leaded-glass pattern of its wings and a thorax that looks like embossed bronze.  And now that I notice the long appendages protruding from a striped abdomen, it's possible this creature is the one that emerged from the exoskeleton atop that Bluet bloom mentioned above. We do have several species of Stonefly, though, and I am not sure which species this is.

Oho!  I have no trouble putting a name to this one! How many iridescently emerald-green, white-spotted, super-speedy beetles do we have?  Called the Six-spotted Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), this ferocious predator of ants, spiders, and caterpillars can run so fast it outruns its brain's ability to see.  So it stops occasionally for its eyesight to catch up -- and for me to capture its gorgeous beauty in a photo.  My photo has also revealed that this tiger beetle has eight spots, not six, but that doesn't matter.  Individuals of this species may have more or fewer than six spots.

This creature, too, a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), was kind enough to stop swimming swiftly through the cold river water and slither up onto this sun-warmed rock to bask -- and allow me to take its picture. This snake's sharp teeth allow it to catch good-sized fish and maneuver them around to go down its throat face first, with fins pressed tight to the fish's body.  I have watched these snakes do just that, so I know not to mess with them.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

This Week's Finds Along Bog Meadow Trail

I returned to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail early this week to show my friend Ruth Brooks the beautiful Nodding Trilliums (Trillium cernuum) I had seen a few days before.  And yes, we did see many of the typical white-flowered Nodding Trilliums. But look what else we found: one that was colored the most remarkable raspberry red!  

Except for the color, this bloom displays many of the typical characteristics of Trillium cernuum, including the sharply recurved petals and the noticeable filaments to the anthers, so we knew it was not a Red Trillium (T. erectum) instead.  But it could be a hybrid of the two trilliums, since both species thrive along this trail.  The Red Trillium comes into bloom a few weeks earlier than the Nodding Trillium, but there is a bit of overlap some years in their bloom time, which would certainly allow for cross pollination.  And I have seen other evidence over the years of the two species hybridizing.

Since my last visit to this trail, a number of other favorite spring wildflowers had come into bloom. I am always struck by the lovely bluish cast to the green leaves of Star-flowered False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) and the terminal cluster of delicate star-shaped white flowers.  Every year I find more and more of this beautiful plant, now numbering close to a hundred specimens, having spread from the original ten I found nearby about 12 years ago.

Another star-flowered beauty of the spring woods is this one, which is actually called Starflower (Lysimachia borealis), an apt vernacular name if there ever was one. Many were starring the path where it leads through the shady forested wetlands.

And those lovely Starflower blooms are never lovelier than when sharing their woodland turf with the equally beautiful and gorgeously colored Fringed Polygala (Polygaloides paucifolia).

A much shyer kind of beauty is offered by the diminutive white blooms of Grove Sandwort (Moehringia lateriflora), which make up for their small size by growing abundantly along Bog Meadow Trail.  I find these flowers in great numbers here at Bog Meadow but hardly anywhere else I wander in Saratoga County. This surprises me some, especially since this species is native to nearly all of the northern regions of the world: Europe and Asia as well as North America.

And lest one dismiss the tiny white flowers of Grove Sandwort as just no'count, plain-vanilla blooms, take a close look into the heart of one, and note the delicate silvery wisps that surround the stamens circling a shiny green ovary.

Of course I extol these native wildflowers!  There's no doubt they are as valuable to their environment as they are beautiful.  But my steps also screeched to a halt to admire this exquisite globe of Dandelion seeds, still held in a perfect orb before the wind could waft them away or the approaching rain could dampen their fluff to a soggy mat.  A "weed" Dandelions may be, but oh, they are beautiful ones!

But while I can still find it in my heart to celebrate the beauty of an alien weed like a Dandelion, I only feel a red rage when I find (as I did this week) these Scarlet Lily Beetles seen below.   Especially when I catch them in the act of reproducing more of what will be the horrid, poop-covered larvae that will eat every Canada Lily plant down to the ground.  

Bog Meadow Trail was for years the site where I could count on finding this native lily (Lilium canadense) in every gorgeous color it's known to bloom in: yellow, orange, and red.   Some of the plants here bore as many as ten blooms in whorls around the top of the stem. Here's a photo I took of one displaying such floral abundance a few years ago:

Sadly, I may not live long enough to witness such abundant blooms of Canada Lilies along this trail again.  A few single-flowered stragglers remain (or have for the past two years), but now that I've seen that the beetles are back, the lilies eventually may be wiped out completely along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail. Here's hoping not!

Meanwhile, I'm glad there's still so much wildflower beauty to celebrate at this marvelous site.