Tuesday, August 23, 2022

What's Abloom in the Shady Swamp?

Hello again, my loyal readers.  I've been away from this blog for quite a while, traveling to visit kids and grandkids and then hosting houseguests myself at home, and now it's time to get back to the woods and the waterways.  That's especially true now, now that the October issue of Adirondack Life Magazine has appeared on news stands, containing a wonderfully written piece by Amy Godine about this very blog.  So just in case her article inspires new readers to come take a look, I'd better give them something new to see.  

But most of all, I needed to get out there and see what's new in the woods -- in this case, a densely forested wetland called the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just at the edge of Saratoga Springs.  It's technically not a true bog, but rather a swamp, home to lots of trees and ferns and mosses and shade-tolerant plants that love living in mud.

One of those plants is the gorgeous Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), and my wildflower journal told me it should be blooming now.  Although it grows well away from the trail, it is easy to  spot through the dense understory, thanks to its large and vibrantly colorful blooms.  Aha!  I see one now!

This is such a beautiful native wildflower, to me it's well worth the wet muddy feet to approach it for a closer look.  Not only are the gorgeously colored composite florets a marvel to behold, the involucres that contain all those florets are covered with narrow white-striped bracts that are quite ornamental in their own right.

A closer look at those white-striped green bracts reveals a cottony webbing among them.  This webbing is the most distinctive feature of this species of thistle, offering a positive clue to its identification.

Another distinctive trait of Swamp Thistle is its often-towering height, up to eight feet tall sometimes.   I have endured sharp pricks on my hands from its spines, because I reached up to pull a flowerhead down for a closer view.  I noticed that this year the plants were not as tall as they've been other years (perhaps because of low rainfall?).  Of the nine plants I visited this day, none towered well over my head, and this one pictured below barely reached my waist.  Its flowerhead barely cleared the arching fronds of the surrounding Sensitive Fern.

The plants being shorter this year made it easier to observe the many insects that visited the colorful blooms to feed on their pollen and nectar.  This bumblebee must have enjoyed quite a feast, since it spent a long time rummaging among the florets, impervious to my camera lens poking in to snap its picture.

This Giant Swallowtail Butterfly was much more elusive, flitting from flower to flower so fast it was hard for my camera to capture it in perfect focus.  No matter.  My eyes could easily take it in, with all its great size and splendor.

Finally sated on all that thistle-related beauty,  I continued to seek what other flowers might be blooming now in this shady swamp.  My search was well-rewarded!  And yielded quite a surprise, too.  I had not found the gorgeous Great Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) blooming at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail for many years, but on this day I was treated to many encounters with it.  This lovely tall spire displayed its royal-blue blooms to great advantage against the dark water of a tiny brook.

A close look at Great Lobelia's florets reveals this native wildflower's distinctive pollination strategy.  Note how the curving stamen arches up through the split upper lip of the flower, with the pollen-laden anther poised for action.  When an insect lands on the lower lip, its weight forces the stamen to spring down and deposit pollen on the nectar-sipping visitor, which it will carry off to spread to neighboring blooms. Sometimes I am simply astounded by the strategies of organisms that are said to be without intelligence!

I was so delighted by what I had already found in the dense shade of this wet woodland, I had to continue my explorations to see what else was in bloom today. I moved on from the swamp to the somewhat drier habitat of the main nature trail. At first glance, no colorful flowers revealed themselves amid the all-encompassing green of the late-summer woods.

Ah, but a closer look revealed abundant bright-orange dangling flowers of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) crowding the banks of the trailside brook.

The chubby, white, closed florets of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) remained well-hidden within the trailside shrubbery, only revealing themselves when I drew abreast of their tall plants.

If I hadn't glanced down, I never would have noticed these knobby mud-colored fruits, all that remained of the giant leaves and bulbous flower spathes of the Skunk Cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) that dominated this forest floor earlier in spring and summer.

And it was only because I noticed the Skunk Cabbage fruits that I happened to espy the tiny-flowered spindly stalks of Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), so nearly invisible were they among the similarly colored and equally slender trailside grasses and sedges.

By contrast, the large spreading flowerheads of Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata) virtually waved at me to get my attention, swaying as they did atop tall slender stems.

The many trailside plants of White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) were also easy to spot, despite their smaller stature, thanks to their showy floral clusters.

Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) could not be missed, either, thanks to its tall stature and the abundance of its pale lavender flowers.

A number of dogwood species thrive along Bog Meadow Trail, and the species called Red Osier (Cornus sericea) can usually be correctly identified at any time of year by its vividly red twigs that are dotted with pale lenticels.   But I was quite surprised to see it still bearing flat clusters of four-petaled white flowers this late in the summer.

The other dogwoods I found here today were already bearing their distinctive fruit. This Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) bears fruits that are snowy white when ripe, but its most distinctive feature is the bright scarlet of the berries' pedicels, a colorful remnant that persists well into the late fall and early winter, after both the berries and leaves have fallen.

The fruits of Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) are a lovely shade of blue, borne on twigs that can be nearly as red as those of Red Osier, although with pale lenticels that appear more striped than dotted.

I continued my walk until I reached a boardwalk that edges a pond that I expected would be covered with floating water lilies.  But today, the lily pads were lying flat on the bottom of what was once the pond.  I realize that near-drought conditions this summer would have lowered the water level some.  But this complete draining was more likely caused by a breach in the beaver dam that usually  maintains higher water levels than this.

Despite the lack of standing water, a number of emergent plant species persisted, including large patches of Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) bearing abundant snowy-white blooms. This small orange Least Skipper butterfly stopped by to sip nectar from one.

Returning along the same trail I had walked out on, I was astounded by how much I had missed while walking the other direction.  How could I possibly NOT have seen the big bright-yellow flower of this Cut-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), especially since it had toppled over to lie right in the path? This is one member of the Rudbeckias that prefers to inhabit damp soils and is also quite tolerant of shady woods.

As for Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), this Pea Family plant can tolerate more "mesic" (neither wet nor dry) soils and can grow in open meadows as well as more shaded habitats. I found along this damp and shady trail many patches of its twining branched stems that bore both trifoliate smooth leaves and clusters of pale-purple flowers.  As suggested by its vernacular name,  the nodules on the roots of Hog Peanut plants are favored by pigs, who root them up from underground. I have read that  these nodules can also be roasted and salted like peanuts, and the dried seeds of its seedpods can be cooked and eaten like lentils.

I wish I had discovered this patch of Horse Balm (Collinsonia canadensis) earlier on my walk, for I might have avoided some mosquito bites if I had.  I cannot swear by this, but the crushed leaves and flowers smell so much like Citronella, a noted mosquito repellent, that I bet I could have rubbed some on my neck and cheeks, and those persistent little bloodsuckers might have gone elsewhere to feed.

Lucky for me, I don't react much to mosquito bites.  But even if I did, the discomfort would have been worth the price for all the pleasure I found along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail this day.  It amazes me how many wonders I found here, even though at first glance there appeared to be little of interest. Silly me!  There's always SOMEthing of interest in any shady swamp or wooded wetland. Especially this one!


Tom said...

...you found a lot of beauty!

The Furry Gnome said...

Nothing like a nice walk through a swamp!

greentangle said...

A fine collection with some of my favorites, from skunk cabbage to jewelweed. Congrats on the article--I'll look again in the future to see if it makes it online.

threecollie said...

Congratulations on the magazine article. Now I will have to look for a copy. Lovely photos, as always.

Bonnie Vicki said...

You had me confused at first when you said you were looking for swamp milkweed which should be blooming now. But that turned into swamp thistle and everything was back to normal. You have written another great article that makes me want to go out exploring. Thanks, Jackie!

Anonymous said...

Godine's superb article captured the skill of your writing, the impressiveness of your photography, the detail of your botany (and critter) knowledge, and the general enthusiasm and fun of your blog. Now the pressure is on to keep it up because you probably have a whole new set of readers who learned about you from that article!

Steve Plumb said...

As I reader of your blog I also find summer to be too busy but try to look every Monday at what delights you have seen. The skunk cabbage fruit is now on my list to find locally, thanks to you.
Fall is the season of decline, but I often see beauty as the natural world dies back. While the red osier and other dogwoods look like someone spilled red wine on their leaves, I wondered is it fungal or the larvae of an insect that is consuming the summer's growth?