Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Walking a Wooded Wetland Trail

Spring regained its senses this past week, delivering cooler temps and the April showers that would be bringing those proverbial May flowers if many hadn't already bloomed and were now fading, thanks to some unseasonably hot weather the week before. But with many of our spring wildflowers still in store, I set off on a trail through the Skidmore woods I rarely explore, one that follows a tumbling creek down into a hollow and offers more of a wetland habitat than other trails in this woods.

Some very helpful trail-maintenance folks had constructed this stone causeway to continue the trail across the creek.

Although a few Sharp-lobed Hepatica plants (Hepatica acutiloba) still held some fading flowers, most flowers were now replaced by attractive seed pods, nestled within a three-parted wreath of bracts and held above the new crop of this year's leaves, some leaves all-green but many others mottled a pretty red and green like the ones in this photo.

I was happy to find American Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) dangling its pale-yellow twin trumpets.  This is not a rare native shrub, but neither is it abundant in every woodland.  It's also a very early bloomer, so its flowers are often already fading by the time I go looking for it. The browning edges of these delicate blooms indicate that I was truly lucky to catch them still in reasonable shape this year. Each flower pair will yield a united pair of bright-red oval berries, joined at the top and pointing in opposite directions. This is one of our very few native bush honeysuckles.

Quite a few scarlet-flowered Red Trilliums (Trillium erectum) were visible along the trail, but many of the flowers were beginning to look a bit worn around the edges. In other years, they would just be emerging this last week of April, but this year they've already been in full flower for over a week. (Sharing this photo are the unfurling fiddleheads of two of our native woodland ferns, Maidenhair Fern on the left, and Christmas Fern on the right.)

As the Red Trilliums start to fade, the Large-flowered White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) are just beginning to come into their glory. There are areas of this woods where hundreds will bloom all at once in a glorious display, but I loved this solitary specimen, nestled within a niche of a boulder, the dark rugged rock providing an impressive contrast to the delicate flower.

As for delicacy, can any other wildflower rival the Two-leaved Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), with its tiny fringed blossoms? Again, a foil of dark moss-covered rock displayed this lovely flower to best advantage.

Here was another native wildflower, the Kidney-leaved Buttercup (Ranuculus abortivus), whose tiny blooms might go unnoticed, even when displayed against a dark background. The wee little star-shaped flowers are shiny and bright yellow, though, so they almost appeared to twinkle against the dark of this moss-covered tree trunk.

More tiny florets, but massed together, these florets form the globular flower clusters of Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) and are easily seen, strewn in masses across the forest floor.

There's nothing at all shy, though, about the large shiny yellow flowers of Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), growing here in the saturated soil of the creekbed. These flowers are so showy and bright, it's hard to believe they are a native wildflower and not some horticulturist's creation.

Not so showy, but colorful in their own spiky way, were these pollen-laden staminate flowers thrusting up from the center of a patch of Broad-leaved Sedge (Carex plataphylla), one of several species of sedge at home in the limestone-underlain Skidmore woods.

Here are more staminate flowers, no petals but only long anthers dangling on slender filaments, masses of them hanging from the stems of a male plant of Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum).  When the pollen is ripe on those anthers, the slightest breeze will cause these flowers to shimmy, wafting the pollen on the air to land on the pistillate flowers of female Early Meadow Rue plants nearby.

And here (in the photo below) are the pinkish-white pistillate flowers of Early Meadow Rue, open and ready to receive that pollen and thus get to work producing this year's crop of seeds.

Clusters of yellow flowers  have yet to emerge from the budding flower stalks protruding from these deeply cut leaves of Canada Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis). But the leaves are so beautiful in their own right, they hardly need their flowers to further ornament the plant.  The leaves remind me of acanthus scrollwork often seen in Victorian plaster moldings.

As for leaves, these deeply pleated red-rimmed baby leaves of Alternate-leaved Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) are just as lovely, to my eye, as will be the shrub's white flower clusters when they emerge. I love how the branches and leaves of this native dogwood are held horizontal to the sky, a trait that suggested this shrub's alternative name, Pagoda Dogwood.

More lovely leaves, the furry red-colored baby leaves of an oak (species unknown).  The young leaves of many trees will be colored red for a short time because they contain anthocyanins, protective chemicals that protect the fragile new leaves.  These reddish pigments have a sunscreen function, which shields the leaves against excess sunlight, and they may also be a signal to insects not to eat them.

Note the reddish color, also, in these emerging Shagbark Hickory leaves (Carya ovata).  Not just emerging, but seemingly exploding! How could all that leaf tissue have been enclosed in that single red-satin bud, huge as that bud indeed was? This eruption of new leaves in the spring forest is one of the major delights of living here in the north.

The unfurling of ferns, too, is one of this season's delights. The tightly curled fronds of all species are called "fiddleheads," although the edible item called "Fiddlehead Fern" refers only to the uncurling young fronds of the species called Ostrich Fern.  The fiddleheads pictured here are those of Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), their identification made easy by the presence of last-year's still-green fronds wreathing the newly emerging fronds. This is one of our easiest ferns to ID, with the individual leaflets (pinnae) resembling Christmas stockings.  I would say the general furriness of the fiddleheads could also be a clue, resembling somewhat the fur of Santa's hat.

These tiny Twizzler-red hairy-stalked fiddleheads will uncoil to reveal the delicate green fronds of Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), which spread their fluttering fan-shaped pinnae horizontally in near-perfect circles, a graceful pattern that is unique among our native ferns.  The stems will change color and texture, from hairy red like those pictured here to shiny black at maturity.  

For many years, this complete change from tiny red fiddlehead to sizable green mature fern made it hard for me to figure out what these wee curled wormy things were.  It took several return visits to observe such a total transformation before this fern revealed its identity to me. I feel very lucky to live near this lime-rich forested habitat, the very kind of habitat that Maidenhair Fern prefers.  The very kind of habitat, too, that many of the other wonders I found today prefer.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Earth Day! What Am I Doing Indoors?

It's Earth Day today.  And here I sit, indoors at my computer.  But that's because I've been outdoors nearly every day this past week, trying to keep up with the floral explosion caused by last week's unseasonable heat, and I'm wading through the flurry of my photos to clear my camera for what's bound to be blooming this coming week.  And just for the phenological record, I want to record on this blog what I've found in bloom this past week.

Here's just a sampling of Mother Earth's marvels, and from only two of this past week's outing locations.

Cottage Park Trail, Moreau Lake State Park, April 15 and 20

One of the nicer features about this woodland-to-mountaintop trail is that its trailhead lies just across the road from the Hudson River.  The river here is beautiful in every season, calmed and widened by being held between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams and dotted with small wooded islands. But the Luzerne Mountains that rise from the far bank are never lovelier than in spring, when the soft pastels of the newly leafing-out hardwood trees are punctuated by the deep greens of the conifers.

I'm joined in my explorations today (April 15) with my wonderful fellow nature explorers Sue Pierce (left) and Ruth Brooks.  We are scouting the trail for when Sue will lead our Thursday Naturalist friends on an outing here on April 20.

The name of the trail, Cottage Park, stems from when this region of the woods held housing for the many workers and project managers constructing the nearby Spier Falls Dam on the Hudson River, the largest privately-owned hydroelectric dam in the nation at the time of its completion in 1903. The stone  foundations are all that remains of this housing, but the stones themselves now provide habitat for numerous beautiful mosses.  Both Sue and Ruth are moss enthusiasts, so we spend quite a bit of time here examining what's growing on the rocks.

Our destination today is not the peaks of the Palmertown Mountains (to which the Cottage Park Trail eventually ascends),  but rather via a spur trail to a stream-crossed vale that lies at the foot of steeply ascending bedrock. One of the most monumental outcroppings is topped by a lush population of Foamflower plants (Tiarella sp.), whose leaf-adorned stolons drape across the face of the rock like bead curtains.

Until I noticed these draping stolons last year and posted a photo of them on Facebook (where some knowledgable botanists responded), I had not realized that the scientific name of our regional species of Tiarella was in the process of being reassigned, from T. cordifolia to T. stolonifera.  Stolons are creeping horizontal plant stems that take root at points along their lengths to form new plants.  This photo below shows a closer look at a Foamflower stolon. In addition to the presence or absence of stolons, the main features distinguishing several Tiarella species are  the shape of the basal leaves, and the presence or absence of leaves on the flowering stem. 

I found online an article that presents some of the botanical discussions surrounding the reassignment of our northern species of Foamflower.

That marvelous rocky outcropping supports abundant numbers of other interesting plants, including the kinds of mosses that kept Ruth riveted to her rock-side seat for quite a while.

Ruth also found this delightfully curly moss on an isolated rock lying on the forest floor. Its scientific name is Thamnobryum alleghaniense. It's also called Shrub Moss, supposedly because the individual plants look like miniature trees with flattened branches arching down from the top of secondary stems. In a damp shady habitat like this one, though, the plants lose their treelike upright posture and sprawl across the face of the ground or rock.

On our way to this rocky outcropping site, we passed through a mixed hardwood/conifer woods that held more Striped Maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) than I have ever seen in one place.  On our first visit (April 15), these understory trees were holding big velvety buds erect as candle flames throughout the forest.

By the time we returned 5 days later, those buds had opened to release bright-green leaves, so there appeared to be flocks of pink-bodied, green-winged birds flitting through the forest.

One of the best reasons we chose this Cottage Park Trail for a Thursday Naturalists' outing was because of the remarkable abundance of beautiful spring wildflowers that thrive at this location.  On our first visit, just a few of the lovely pink-striped blooms of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) were beginning to open.  When we returned on April 20, we had to step carefully, so numerous were the flowers scattered across the forest floor.

Not quite so numerous but yet abundant, too, were many plants of Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).  Still mostly in bud on our preview walk, they were fully in bloom when we returned on April 20.

The budding Red Trilliums (Trillium erectum) too, had opened wide their crimson flowers five days later.

And the tight buds of Round-leaved Violets (Viola rotundifolia) we'd found on the 15th were fully in bloom when we returned with our Thursday Naturalist friends on the 20th.

In just those five days, though, the fluffy yellow male flowers of Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) had faded to beige, having already shed their pollen on the white thready female flowers below them on the stems. I'm glad I captured their sprightly beauty on our preview visit.

Very few fungi sprout as early in spring as does the vivid Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea).   It's a nicely persistent one, too, looking just as brightly red and intact when we returned on the 20th as it did the day we found it on the 15th.   It was like a cherry atop the pleasure of our two visits to this marvelous location.

North Woods at Skidmore College, April 21

Another beautiful balmy day, and what better way to spend it than walking with my friends (L-R) Ruth Brooks, Tom Callaghan, and Dana Stimpson through the limestone underlaid woods at Skidmore College? I had been here just a week ago to find only a few hepaticas in bloom.  What would we find today, after those days of extreme heat followed by some rainy cool ones?

The first surprise was to find some Large-flowered Bellwort (Utricularia grandiflora) dangling big yellow flowers already. Wait!  Don't the Sessile-leaved Bellworts bloom first?

Well, this year those two bellworts are sharing the same bloom time.  Although the U. grandiflora are more abundant in this woods, we did find a few of the Sessile-leaved Bellworts (U. sessilifolia) hiding out beneath the trunks of trees.

Another surprise! The yellow-flowered, delicate-leaved Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) was blooming already.  I usually have to wait at least a week after finding the Early Blue Cohosh (C. giganteum) blooming before I find these blooming nearby. And those I had yet to see.

But there they were!  Just a few yards away and from all appearances, the Early Blue Cohosh (C. giganteum) were just beginning to bloom, with their dark purple leaves yet unfurled, while the dark purple flowers were already sprouting ripe pollen.  This seems quite backward from usual years,  when C. giganteum precedes C. thalictroides by at least a week. What a crazy year!

I was not expecting to find any Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) today, since I know it to be such a brief bloomer and I'd already found some blooming a week ago.  But a few did persist in flower, even though most plants were already holding jade-green seed pods aloft.

Darn, but even most of the Trout Lily flowers (Erythronium americanum) were looking a little past peak!  I felt lucky to find this lovely patch of them in their prime, perhaps protected by the tree roots from last week's unseasonable heat.

True to my expectations, most hepaticas, whether Round-lobed or Sharp-lobed, were already fading.  That's why this gorgeous deep-purple bloom was such a surprising treat, especially since other hepatica  plants had already gone to seed.

But I think hepatica's seed pods are almost as pretty as the flowers, a sphere of spiky little seeds set within a trio of green bracts.

The most flourishing flowers we found today were the Long-spurred Violets (Viola rostrata), some plants just opening their buds, others in full bloom, like this lovely bunch of purple flowers. Some plants held blooms so pale they appeared nearly white, and other plants held pied blooms mottled pale-purple and white.  But all of these color variations featured a darker purple at the center, a distinctive trait of this native violet species.

Other violets blooming now in this woods included the Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), a species that bears its leaves and flowers on the same stems.  This helps to distinguish this violet from the other yellow violet blooming now (or earlier), the Round-leaved Violet, which has basal leaves only.

Most of the Canada Violet plants (Viola canadense) that crowded areas littered with limestone rocks had yet to produce any flowers. So this single yellow-centered white bloom was a delightful treat.  I also was glad to see the buds showing purple, a color that continues to tinge the back of the Canada Violet's pure-white petals even after the flowers open wide.

Did you notice the tiny reddish fiddleheads poking up amid the Canada Violet's leaves in the photo above? Those are the first shoots of the Bulblet Ferns (Cystopteris bulbifera) that flourish atop the craggy limestone rocks littering this area of the forest floor.  Here's a frond that has unfurled a bit more, displaying the translucent red stalks that remind me of Cherry Twizzlers.  When mature, this species of fern (which prefers calcareous habitats like this) will reproduce via both spores and clonal bulblets.  Hence the name Bulblet Fern.

Many plants of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) also inhabit the limey rocks here, their small brownish flowers pressing close to the rock.  I usually have to push aside the large heart-shaped green leaves to espy the single flower, but this one showed its face to me quite openly.  I imagine because it usually hides its flower beneath the leaves and lies flat on the ground where hardly any pollen could be wafted about, that it prefers to be pollinated by ants and other insects that crawl on the forest floor.  The abundant patches I find in this woods seem to indicate it has few problems in reproducing, at least in the right habitat.

One of the nicest things about Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) is its long bloom time.  Even though I found some blooming at a nearby site a week ago, the ones I saw in the Skidmore woods on this day looked as lovely as ever.

And here was the promise of more Trillium beauty to come -- and lots and lots of it!  Although only one of the many Large-flowered White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) sprouting up now bore a flower as open as this, hundreds more will be carpeting the forest floor in the weeks to come.  And I do mean weeks.  Usually, anyway, barring unusual heat. Then a week of big white flowers will be followed by an ample period of pink blooms as the flowers fade.

Lots more lovely plants to come in the weeks ahead.  I feel very grateful to live in such wildflower heaven!

Saturday, April 15, 2023


 Hey, summer heat!  Not so fast!  I could hardly believe what my outdoor thermometer read yesterday (April 14). Just a tad over 100 degrees, at 4 PM.  Such heat will surely push our just-emerging wildflowers into blooming really fast.  Too fast, I'm afraid.  How will I keep up with them all?

Overnight, the Twinleaf plant (Jeffersonia diphylla) in my backyard garden went from first leaves pushing up from the dirt to fully in bloom:

I had planted this native wildflower in my garden because it doesn't usually occur naturally this far east in New York State, and I just wanted to see its lovely flowers.  And even when Twinleaf  grows where it has been planted, its bloom is so brief its petals will drop in a day. I figured if all I had to do was step out my back door, I might have a chance to see it in bloom.  And that I did, today. I caught it in full open bloom at 7 o'clock this morning. 

But it was another hot day today.  Over 80 by early afternoon.

I doubt I will see these lovely flowers tomorrow.  When I got home about 3 this afternoon, I ran out to my garden to feast my eyes on this pristine blossom.  But I inadvertently touched the bloom, and three of the petals fell off.  Ah well, at least I did briefly see it in its glory. Rain is due to fall tonight, so that will be the end of bloom time for this Twinleaf plant.

But the rain will probably spur even more blooms of another wildflower that burst into flower in my yard today:  the beautiful Confederate Violet (Viola sororia f. priceana).

I did not plant these violets, a naturally occurring form of our native Common Blue Violet.  Nor did I intentionally plant the regular purple Common Blue Violets that used to compete with the turf grass in my tiny lawn for space (a contest I was happy to see the violets making headway in). The purple-flowered violets just yielded to the whiter form over the years, and now that's all that grow there.  And who could complain?  The flowers are really pretty.  

And when the flowers fade, the leaves stay green and low until snow falls on them.  And they quickly revive in spring.  Especially if the temperature hovers around 100!

This unseasonable heat has stirred the woodland wildflowers into blooming as well.  I'm sure glad I got down to the Ballston Creek Preserve on Thursday to catch the Bloodroot in bloom. This native wildflower (Sanguinaria canadensis) is not only an early bloomer, but also a very brief bloomer, so as soon as I learn that other wildflower enthusiasts are seeing it, I hurry to where I think I might find it.  And so I did!  Lucky me!

And while down at the Ballston Creek Preserve, I ventured back into the woods, expecting to find a few Carolina Spring Beauty flowers (Claytonia caroliniana) poking up through the leaf litter.  And did I?  Oh wow, you betcha!!! And way more than just a few.  Hundreds and hundreds of them! Each blossom as lovely as or lovelier than the last.

The wildflower floodgates are open now, for sure! I just hope some cooler weather will slow the flood just a bit.