Friday, March 31, 2023

A First Hint of Hepaticas!

Despite temps in the 20s this morning, I went out to the Skidmore College woods today, wondering if the fuzzy buds of hepaticas might be showing.  I find both the Sharp-lobed Hepatica species (Hepatica acutiloba) and the Round-lobed Hepaticas (H. americana) there in that lime-rich forest.  Now that the snow is finally gone from the forest floor, I can easily find hepaticas' wintered-over and rather showy leaf clusters.  But would I find the buds emerging yet?  It was possible. The buds have thick fur coats to protect them from early spring's occasional freezes,  so my hopes were up.

And so were the buds!   At least in this one Round-lobed plant they were.  I didn't find them in every nearby plant I examined, but they sure were present in this one.  So furry they were, as if bundled up in buntings against the cold.

And look, the buds are starting to open, and some pretty pink petals are poking out!

I wandered about, peering into the center of every hepatica leaf cluster I found, hoping to see more furry, petal-tipped buds.  Nope.  Nope. Yep. Nope. Yep. Nope.

Then YES!  I found not only some fur-coated buds, but a single wide-open pale-purple flower, springing from the center of this cluster of sharp-lobed, prettily mottled green leaves.

This is IT, folks! The first of our native forest-floor spring flowers.  The Spring Ephemeral Festival has just begun!

(Strictly speaking, though, we can't call hepaticas "spring ephemerals," since their leaves persist, not only all summer, but all winter long and also well into the following spring.  That's what makes their early signs of bloom -- like this! --  possible to find.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Spring's Tiniest Flowers, Unlikely Sites

OK, I've already checked off the first two entries of my spring wildflower checklist:  Skunk Cabbage, first, then Coltsfoot (both found along the Spring Run Trail in downtown Saratoga Springs). Now it was time to go look for the next two entries that usually follow soon after, American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) and Spring Whitlow Grass (Draba verna).  And I knew just where to find them.

Uh oh!  Maybe not.  I thought the deep snow would be gone by now under the powerline that runs just north of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park. Dozens of American Hazelnut shrubs thrive along here, although most had been flattened by last week's heavy wet snow.  When I stopped there this past Monday, I could see that the shrubs had righted themselves, but the snow still lay deep at this site.

Really deep!  Would all this snow chill the site and delay the hazelnut's bloom time?

Not at all, to judge from the plethora of staminate male catkins I saw dangling from the twigs!

But of all the dozens of hazelnut shrubs I searched carefully, in only ONE of those shrubs could I find the wee little red pistillate flowers emerging from their buds.  But that's all I needed to check American Hazelnut off my list of early bloomers.  Ta da!  (And to judge from the nuts we find ripening at this site every summer, many more female flowers will yet come into bloom.)

On to the next early bloomer, the Draba verna, which I always find at the Wilton Mall near Saratoga Springs, in a patch of barren-looking dirt that runs the length of the south-facing wall of BJ's Wholesale Club.  From the driver's seat of my car, I sure couldn't see any sign of flowers growing there. But I recalled Aldo Leopold's words about Draba (in his Sand County Almanac):  "He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eyes steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance." So I parked my car along the road, walked over to the wall, and fell down on my knees in the dirt.

And there were the sought-after itty-bitty flowers, "in abundance"!  That entire stretch of dirt was sprinkled with uncountable numbers of teeny tiny plants of Draba verna.  And look, the flowers are already producing seeds! I guess that means the plants have been blooming already for some time.  This plant is a really early spring bloomer!

I am aware that the wee little wildflower that Aldo Leopold waxes so poetic about was a native species called  Draba reptans, but every detail he mentions about his native plant rings true for our introduced species, Draba verna:  "Sand too poor and sun too to weak for bigger, better blooms are good enough for Draba. . . . Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its colour is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible woolly coat."  Here's another photo of Draba verna that shows its tiny basal leaves in their "sensible woolly coat."  And look, down in the right-hand corner are some other tiny leaves that look kind of woolly, too.

Ah yes, another little "waste place" plant called Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), a very common introduced "weed" of barren soils like this.  And this tiny flower was already blooming, too. So that makes it Number 5 on my checklist of the first early-blooming wildflowers of spring.

Now on to April, and the flood of many more spring bloomers awaits!

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Amazing Color in the Still-Snowy Woods

While snow still covers the ground in much of our local forest, the explosion of colorful native spring wildflowers still lies in wait.  But that doesn't mean we won't find some amazing color out there already.  This remarkably yellow Skunk Cabbage spathe is one example.  My friend Sue Pierce found a few pure-yellow specimens among the much-more-typical red-streaked ones in a wetland near Glens Falls, which is where I took this photo. 

After prowling that wetland, where we found several more Skunk Cabbage spathes displaying this highly unusual color, we next visited another known site for abundant Skunk Cabbage plants, the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, curious to see if any yellow examples were growing there.

But no.  We found no pure-yellow spathes among the hundreds of deep-red Skunk Cabbage plants at Orra Phelps.

But we sure did find a lot of other pure-yellow flowers there!  Hundreds and hundreds of them, carpeting the ground in what was either an old walled garden or the floor of an old cellar hole.

These were not a native wildflower, though.  These were the aptly named Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis),  a Eurasian import loved by American gardeners for its extremely early bloom time, often opening canary-yellow blooms right through the melting snow cover.

This abundant patch of Winter Aconite shared its sun-warmed soil with another aptly-named garden flower called Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.), another import cherished by gardeners for its very early appearance in the spring.

Some of the Winter Aconite blooms were still surrounded by snow!

  Many more colorful finds awaited us as we made our way through the woods.  This fallen tree limb speckled with bright-red fungus certainly caught our eye!  We recognized the fungus as Red Tree Brain (Peniophora rufa), and we were surprised how it had retained its color throughout the winter.  That alerted us to start searching other fallen logs for more examples of persisting color.

And we were not disappointed! What a marvelous mix of fungi, lichens, moss, and liverworts, all sharing the same stretch of rotting wood! And all just as colorful as when we had first seen them months ago.

The Red Tree Brain fungus was underlaid by a carpet of ruddy-brown Frullania liverwort, surmounted by lime-green tufts of Bristle Moss and ornamented by several pale-green and orange-yellow lichens.

This gray-green patch of Rosette lichen was dotted with hundreds of its fruiting bodies.

Two tiny red disks (species unknown) shared space with a cluster of Yellow Poplar Sunburst lichen.

How gorgeous was this combination of bright-red Tree Brain Fungus and spring-green Bristle Moss, ornamented with sparkling crystals of ice!

These leathery patches of Wrinkled Crust fungus (Phlebia radiata) had actually deepened in color over the winter, from the paler salmon-pink they were last fall to the deep Morocco-leather red they are now.

These persisting caps of Violet Tooth Polypore (Trichaptum biforme) did fade over the winter, losing the purple rim that makes them immediately recognizable when fresh. Now a more neutral tan,  they could be one of several different look-alike shelf fungi.  Until we turn them over to see the undersides.

The pore surface of Violet Tooth Polypore is quite distinctive, even in late winter.  The cinnamon-brown color is one distinction, as are the now-exploded pores that have assumed a maze-like appearance.

Before we left Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, we made sure to visit one of our favorite liverworts, this lime-green Handsome Woollywort (Trichocolea tomentella) that covers several small boulders in a swale. This species stands out from other liverworts because of its unusually fluffy appearance, the trait that no doubt helped to suggest its delightful vernacular name.  And like all liverworts, we can find it just as freshly colorful at the end of winter as it was before winter began.

One last colorful treat surprised us as we headed toward our cars. A stray sunbeam lit up the vivid translucence of this Orange Jelly Fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus [alternately, chrysospermus]) to give us one more jolt of joy on this outing otherwise filled with many jolts of amazing color.  The green fringe of Intermediate Fern pinnae perfectly framed the fungus's beauty.

Friday, March 24, 2023

A Toast to Spring, With Saratoga Spring Water

Except for a mostly blue sky, it wasn't really very "springlike" last Monday, when my friends Sue and Dana and I celebrated the first day of spring with a walk at Saratoga Spa State Park.  The temps were still well below freezing as we walked down the Ferndell Ravine, on our way to toast the new season with waters from some of the park's many natural mineral springs. 

(The stone basin pictured here was formerly piped to provide from the city's treated drinking water, not mineral water springing up from the earth. It does not function during the winter.)

A cold wind was channeling down the ravine, but we did pause our hurrying steps long enough to notice some of the trailside plants.  This flourishing bank of Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea) was a sign that lime must be one of the minerals in the mineral water, since this evergreen sedge will seldom grow where the soil is not enriched with lime.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is a native shrub that actually likes it cold, and its fully-formed leaf/flower buds defy winter's blasts by the merest of means, the thinnest of flockings.  I myself was shivering in my down coat, while these buds (which appeared to be about to open) looked as perky as ever.

Ah, more sunlight waited as we emerged from the shady ravine, bathing the park's picnic area with its warming rays.  The water that bubbled up from the first spring we tasted, though, was icy cold, and sparkly with effervescence from its natural carbonation. Refreshing!

Tallulah, the second spring we visited, lies well off the road, but a helpful sign points out its location.

"Tallulah" is a Native American word that means "leaps from the earth," and that is exactly what the waters of the Tallulah Spring do. It was easy to fill our tasting cups from this gentle flow.

Tallulah's water flows across the earth, where exposure to the air oxidizes its iron content and turns its mineral deposits blood red.

That the water of Polaris, the next spring we tasted, is also rich in iron is indicated by the rusty-red of its stone basin. This water "reaches for the stars" as the built-up energy from dissolved gasses forces it up from the earth.  We had to time our movements to capture a cup of this dancing water out of the air, without saturating our gloves.

Our next spring, the Hayes Spring, awaited along the banks of Geyser Creek, which was flowing energetically from the melting of a recent heavy snowfall.

The Hayes Spring is said to contain more minerals than any of Saratoga's other springs, and Sue is about to see what this mineral-rich cocktail tastes like.  (Our friend Dana was willing to sniff all these waters, but politely declined to sample them.)

I guess the Hayes Spring water was not to Sue's liking!  Not really to mine, either, but I did take a sip to honor the occasion.

The next spring awaited us along the trail that follows Geyser Creek.  In fact it's this very spring, misnamed "The Geyser," that lent its name to the creek.   This spring is actually NOT a geyser (which is a hot spring that acquires its energy from a build-up of geothermal heat), but is rather a "spouter," acquiring its energy from a build-up of cold gasses.  We were not able to taste these waters, since access to its "island" is forbidden, in order to prevent the destruction of its "tufa" -- the mound-like accretion of mineral deposits that grows larger as the years go by.

As we walked the trail along the creek, we examined the stone walls and steep banks lining the trail for whatever wintering-over ferns and mosses we could find. The evergreen fern pictured here was an Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia).

These shriveled remains could still be identified as belonging to Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum pedatum). This beautiful fern is usually an indicator of lime-rich soil.

Sue examines this moss-covered bank for the presence of liverworts.  That an iron-rich mineral-water spring is wetting this bank was made obvious by the reddened streak through the green mossy carpet.

As the sun rose higher, the temperature rose above freezing, but icicles still draped these bank-clinging tree roots where the sun could not reach them.

Dana and Sue stand before the huge tufa that rises along Geyser Creek.  This impressive mound of mineral deposits has resulted from the flowing waters of the Orenda Spring high atop the steep bank.

Peering closely at the water-washed dome, we could see the beautiful patterns of built-up calcium deposits as the water shimmered over them.

A set of stairs leads to the top of the bluff, where a small stone house encloses Orenda Spring.  The word "Orenda" means a divine force believed by the Iroquois people to be the source of all positive human accomplishment.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the peoples of the world could be so transformed by drinking the waters of this spring?  One could only hope!

Filled with such hope, we filled our cups and toasted the new season with icy-cold effervescent spring water.