Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Riparian Plants at Riparius

A sunny day, at last!  Yeah, it rained (as usual!) by early afternoon this past Monday, but we did have a blue-sky morning. And my friend Sue Pierce and I had a truly gorgeous place to spend it: the banks of the Hudson River at Riparius, a hamlet in the upper Hudson River Valley of Warren County. And we had  some great company, too.

We had come to Riparius, a former Methodist-affiliated cottage encampment now open to residents of any (or no) denomination, at the invitation of our friend Chris Kreussling, seen here photographing one of his favorite subjects, the insect visitors to riverside plants.  Chris is a naturalist and native-plant gardener from Brooklyn who posts a blog called Flatbush Gardener, and he became our friend through our mutual Facebook connections.  We try to get together for some botanizing each time Chris comes north to visit relatives.  And this was our lucky day! I know Chris got some terrific shots of some truly beautiful bugs, so be sure to check his blog to find out if he posted the photos there.

The Hudson River this far north is shallow, rocky, and turbulent, features that contribute to large deposits of ice along the shore in the winter.  These icy deposits help to create a habitat that supports  the growth of many interesting plants, and we were here to see what might be blooming this late in the summer. And also just to enjoy some spectacular views of a rushing river and surrounding mountains.

The sounds of rushing water added to our pleasure, as we teetered along, carefully stepping from rock to rock as we explored the riverbank and its inhabitants.

Yes, we were there to see what flowers might be blooming, but the fauna was just as interesting to us as the flora was. If you follow the direction toward which Sue's camera is pointed, you will see the small Green Frog looking back at her from its watery perch.

It was froggy heaven the day we walked there, with every footstep producing numerous plop-plops! as the frogs leapt from the riverside grasses into the water.  They then would many times turn right around to look back at us, maintaining a frozen posture as if they assumed that their speckled camouflage would prevent our seeing them.

And yes, there were some beautiful plants.  We found Water Smartweed (Persicaria amphibia) growing both on the banks and also floating out in the water,  holding tight clusters of pretty pink florets erect.

Further up on the shore, many fluffy white tufts of Canandian Burnet blooms (Sanguisorba canadensis) were either waving in the breeze atop long slender stems, or (as these three were) resting where the wind had toppled them into the grass.

Numerous small white asters formed a lovely foil for the spectacular red blooms of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Purple-stemmed Asters (Symphyotrichum punicium) also contributed their evidence that aster season was truly upon us.  This tall species, with its large pale-purple flowers and more-reddish-than-purplish stems, is sometimes called Swamp Aster, due to its preference for dampish habitats.

From our previous visits to other similar northern Hudson shores, we expected to find some Kalm's Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) tucked in among the rocks.  And so we did.  What surprised us, though, was that we found only solitary blooms of these pretty blue flowers.  We usually see them growing in many-flowered clumps.

That was true as well for the occasional Marsh Bellflower bloom (Campanula aparinoides) we encountered: just a single solitary miniature flower, instead of numerous blooms to a plant, sprawling on slender stems.

The most abundant wildflowers we found were numerous patches of Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes sp.), a pretty little multi-flowered white orchid that is native to New York State.  A couple of years ago, I could have asserted that the ones we found this day were the species called Nodding Ladies' Tresses (S. cernua), but taxonomists have since informed us that that species does not grow this far north.  The Ladies' Tress orchids likely to be found blooming this late in August in Warren County could be either Spiranthes incurva (Sphinx Ladies' Tresses) or S. arcisepala (Appalachian Ladies' Tresses).  I'm afraid that even if these florets were open wide enough to warrant accurate ID, I would have no confidence in my ability to distinguish them. So simply Ladies' Tresses will have to do. But wow, did we find a LOT of them!

After a couple of hours testing our balance out on the riverbank rocks, we made our way back to Chris's place via the lane that passes along the string of small riverside cottages that make up this settlement.   Of course, we stopped to note what dry-land flowers grew along the lane.  There was lots of yellow goldenrod, certainly, but I was struck by this generous clump of the white-flowered goldenrod called (what else?) SILVERrod (Solidago bicolor).

Sprawling in the roadside grass was another plant that caught my eye, thanks to its clusters of pretty pink florets and its vining habit.  Called Groundnut (Apios americana) because of its edible underground tubers, this plant usually climbs high on any adjacent structure, so it was unusual to view its flower clusters from above.  

The convoluted structure of the Groundnut's florets deserved a closer look, so I lifted one of the clusters for a better view.  And also the better to breathe its heady fragrance.

I had seen many White Baneberry plants (Actaea pachypoda) bearing fruits this past week or so, but none had produced a berry cluster as spectacularly gorgeous as this one, which was growing close to the road.

Not only was this berry cluster twice the length of those I'd seen previously, but the chalk-white  unblemished berries were held on the most vividly colorful pedicels of any I have ever seen. Could there be something special in the soil?  Perhaps the Hudson's spring floods had delivered extra nutrients.  Or maybe all those Methodists, during all their years of singing and praying here, had cast special blessings on this particular plot of earth.  There certainly DID seem something especially marvelous about this lovely place.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

High Meadow Finds

It has really been hard to enjoy a day without rain of late. But I had to get up to this high meadow under a mountain-traversing powerline!  The gorgeous Pasture Thistles should be blooming now, and this somewhat challenging climb above the Hudson River at Moreau would lead me to the only place I have ever found them. So, despite a forecast of possible storms, up and up and up I went.   I could glimpse the Hudson River far below, its waters held back by the Spier Falls Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world when it was completed in 1903 and still producing the many kilowatts of power carried by the lines I was walking beneath.  Just the view from up here was worth the sweat and my wobbly knees.

And so was the prospect of laying eyes on one of our most beautiful native wildflowers, the Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum), with its brilliantly colored blooms nearly as big as my fist, and as fragrant as they are gorgeous. This photo, taken on a previous summer, exemplifies the flowers I expected to find.

But alas, the thistles were quite a disappointment!  Some were still only in bud, while others had already gone to seed, and all looked rather bedraggled, many with brown-edged and withered leaves. I wonder if this summer's excessive heat and torrential rains had just been too hard on these flowers. This partially opened bud was the best looking bloom I could find.

This Goldfinch didn't care what the Pasture Thistles looked like and was happy to find some already gone to seed. The bird was so busy rifling the remains, I was able to get quite close without frightening it away.

Not nearly as showy as Pasture Thistle usually is, but adorable nonetheless: this is Bicknell's Cranesbill (Geranium bicknellii), another floral denizen of this mountainside meadow. This native wildflower is a not-uncommon inhabitant of rocky summits and roadsides in New York State, but it is often overlooked because of its small size and sprawling habitat.

The seedpods of Bicknell's Cranesbill provide a clue as to how this little geranium acquired the vernacular name "cranesbill":

Several species of Tick Trefoils (Desmodium spp.) thrive in the thin rocky soils of this mountainside meadow. Showy, Large-bracted, Panicled, and Round-leaved were all in bloom this day, but the only species that wasn't waving about wildly in the growing-ever-stronger wind was this Round-leaved Tick Trefoil (D. rotundifolium), with big round leaves that lie nearly flat as they sprawl across the ground.

There yet remained many wildflowers I'd hoped to find and photograph, but the rumble of thunder and a rising wind warned me I'd better descend from this wide-open high terrain as quickly as I could.  But I did have to halt to admire the spectacular size and sunburst colors of this gorgeous fungus occupying a fallen log. It goes by the common name Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), but I have yet to see a chicken as dramatically colored as this.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Gentians Revive!

Ahh!  One of our favorite ponds in the southern Adirondacks!  It looked so serene and lovely, despite a brisk breeze, when my friends Sue and Ruth joined me there for a paddle last Friday.  I could hardly wait to feel the silken glide of my little canoe as I pushed off from the gravelly shore and drifted along close to the pine-scented banks, hoping to once again delight in lushly moss-covered boulders and colorful wildflowers. But would this pond break my heart again, as it had the past two years?


Two years ago, because of a clogged culvert and torrential rainfall, this pond was flooded far back into the surrounding woods.  Every single one of the pond-side floral treasures we'd come here to find was several feet under the water. This photo from 2021 shows all the steep banks flooded, with trees standing several feet deep in water.  By the following year, 2022, many of those trees were dead, as seemed all but one or two of the hundreds of Green Wood Orchids and thousands of Narrow-leaved Gentians that had lined these shores for years. Would we find any signs of revival this year? Oh, how I hoped we would!

Yes, the north-facing rocky banks showed sure signs of life returning.  Some yellowing Painted Trillium leaves indicated a flower had bloomed there just this past May. And the Bunchberry must have as well, since their low-growing wreaths of pleated leaves were centered now with clusters of bright-red berries.  No sign as yet of the carpets of white-flowered, five-petaled Dalibarda, but perhaps they would show by September (I  think I see a single small heart-shaped leaf). The glossy-green trifoliate leaves of Goldthread proved that life was still in them.   I could feel my anxieties ease.

That ease continued with each floral find.  Where hundreds of Green Wood Orchids were nowhere to be found a year ago, now we saw occasional stands of pod-filled stalks, indicating that some, anyway, had made a definite comeback.  

And there!  Like a royal-blue beacon, one glorious bloom of a Narrow-leaved Gentian announced to us that not all was lost. "Keep paddling," this beautiful flower seemed to say, "and you will find many more."

And so we did!  Not nearly as many as two years before, when we could not paddle five yards without seeing dozens upon dozens crowding the shore, but enough to revive our hopes 

Signs of that comeback continued, all around the pond.  There were even more Narrow-leaved Gentians along the south-facing shore, where much more sunlight had spurred their earlier growth, so that now, already, the plump blue flowers were streaked with signs of fading.

Now I could relax and attend to other plants that shared this pondside. Emerging from shallow water, several patches of Arrowhead held multi-flowered stems of snowy-white blooms amid their arrow-shaped leaves.

Even though many Mountain Holly shrubs had been partially toppled by previous flooding, their berry-laden branches hung low over the water, allowing us paddlers to gaze right into the foliage to delight in the super-saturated red of the fruits.

As we dawdled along, poking into every little niche in the rocky banks and pausing among the emergent bur-reeds to observe the hundreds of glittering-winged damselflies, the wind picked up to set the pondside vegetation to swaying. Tall grasses bowed to the breeze, as did the rosy-flowered spikes of Steeplebush.

The flaccid leaves of Narrow-leaved Bur-reed gleamed green and gold on the surface of the water, their colors changing as the rippling water moved in sinuous waves through the massed mats of floating leaves.

Sue called to us to come see what she'd found among the pondside vegetation: a clear jelly glob containing Caddisfly eggs.

I urged my friends to come get a gander at this enormous Striped Fishing Spider, which was clinging to an overhanging tree, watching for likely aquatic prey.  When I peered too close, the spider turned as if to flee, but perhaps it thought if it just froze still, I might go away and leave it be.  Which I did, after I shot this photo.

If that Fishing Spider was huge, this itty-bitty one (species unknown) clinging to a Sweet Gale pod was just the opposite. At first I thought it was doing a backbend, but then I realized it had simply pulled six of its eight legs forward around its head. Perhaps it was using all of those legs to tie complicated knots in its delicate web. Who knows?

When we reached the far end of this oblong pond we pushed into a vast forest of stiffly erect bur-reed leaves. Since the wind was actually chilly this day, it felt very soothing to be held unmoving within the shelter of this sunlit mass, warmed by the noontime rays.

I'm not sure of the species of bur-reed this is, but I bet if I took one of those burs apart and noted the shape of its nutlets I could key it out.  If I had the right guide to aquatic plants, that is. Which I didn't.

Pushing further into the bur-reed mat, I followed the sound of tumbling water to the edge of this beaver dam.  Just beyond the top of the dam, much deeper water was spilling over the edge.  I sure hope that the dam holds and persists, so as not to dump enormous floods of water into the main pond, and possibly flood the waterside plants once again.  What an impressive work, this dam!  It stretched the entire width of the pond across the eastern end.

As I  turned around to contemplate returning to our put-in, I paused to rejoice in the serene beauty of this pond, gleaming like satin below a kind blue sky.  I had come here so many times over the past few years, feeling so blessed by the incredible abundance of Narrow-leaved Gentians (Gentiana linearis), that their temporary loss had truly saddened me.  So now I felt just as elated as I'd felt saddened before.

My friends and I spent a bit more time on shore before heading off to a favorite nearby spot for lunch. For here was a sunlit, sandy-soiled patch of Common Milkweed blooms where we'd often found Monarch Butterflies and their caterpillars.  Would we find any today?

Nope, but we did find others just as amazing:  this crowed clutch of Milkweed Tussock Moth cats. I often find one or two on a milkweed plant, but such a pack of them massed all together was something to behold!

Friday, August 11, 2023

Soggy Pursuits at Bog Meadow

To tempt my friends Sue Pierce and Ruth Brooks to join me at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail this week, I promised them we'd probably find the gorgeous Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum) blooming there now. When both asked if they would need to wear rubber boots,  I assured them they wouldn't.  Oh no, I told them, there's no standing water, just kind of damp soil in the thickly forested swamp we'd be pushing through. (I always find the Swamp Thistle quite a ways off the trail.)   Well, I was wrong. We've had a tremendous amount of rain this summer.

It was a good thing my friends did wear their boots.  There was actually quite a bit of standing water in the swamp, deep enough to hide the root that tripped me and sent me sprawling, right on my backside, into black mud.

Ah well, that muddy butt was well worth it! For there they were, hidden well back in the mucky woods: quite a number of tall Swamp Thistles, most still in bud but a few displaying their gorgeous pinky-purple blooms.

Even when not in bloom, the Swamp Thistle buds are both beautiful and fascinating, with red-tipped, white-striped green involucre bracts (called "phyllaries" in botanical-speak) interlaced with hair-fine webbing that looks as if a spider has been very busy among the bracts. This webbing is a distinctive trait of this particular thistle species. But in this particular bud cluster, there may indeed have been a spider casting webs around this group of blooms: I had never seen so much webbing outside of the phyllaries!

There were other beauties hiding back here in the muck, including many tall blooming stalks of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). The gorgeous blue flowers have an interesting pollination structure, with the stamen protruding outside a slit in the upper petal. When an insect lands on the lower petal, its weight  causes the stamen to spring downward through the slit and bop the insect's back with a load of  pollen. Clever!

This swamp is one of the few places I know of where Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) thrives, its slender forking branches looking very lacy this time of the summer.

At least four other species of Equisetum also grow in Bog Meadow's forested wetlands: E. arvense (Field Horsetail), E. fluviatile (Water Horsetail), E. hyemale (Scouring Rush), and this wee little squiggly mass of curling stems called E. scirpoides (Dwarf Horsetail). The Dwarf Horsetail is an evergreen species, and we found lots and lots of it in this muddy area. 

The leaves of the masses of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) that earlier in the summer filled this swamp have mostly withered,  but we did find a few of the wood-hard fruits, which resemble intricately carved oval ornaments.

Aah!  Solid ground beneath our feet at last! We emerged from our mucky wetland onto the main trail of this beautiful preserve. The Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail lies just on the eastern edge of Saratoga Springs and runs for about two miles through several types of wooded wetland, including open marsh and dense forest,  such as the green and shady trail pictured here.

We had barely stepped onto this main trail before we spotted a tiny floral treasure that Sue and Ruth are closely examining here.

My friends are examining Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), a native wildflower often overlooked, because it is so small.  Also, its greenish-yellow coloring and apparently leafless stems allow it to hide among other low green plants. But luckily, it didn't escape our searching eyes on this day. Usually found in sunlit sphagnum bogs and fens, it was kind of surprising to find a nice patch of it growing along this wooded trail.

This Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) would have been much easier to espy among the trailside woods if it hadn't been curving down low to the ground, possibly toppled by some of the torrential rains that have battered our region of late. But its big yellow flowers announced its presence quite clearly.  Normally a very tall plant, this native wildflower is also known as Cutleaf Coneflower, a name suggested by its deeply cut leaves.

This abundant cluster of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) was mature enough to have turned its previously downturned flowers skyward, the better to reveal its obviously floral internal structures. Sometimes this pale wildflower is mistaken for a white fungus,  and the plant does depend on fungi to  survive. Lacking any green color at all, it does not photosynthesize,  but instead obtains nutrients by parasitizing fungi that associate with plant roots. These mycorrhizal fungi help the plants take up water and nutrients that might otherwise be inaccessible to the plants.

These pale-pink flowers also appeared to have no leaves, on first observation.  But a closer examination would reveal that the flower stalk was attached underground to the group of green leaves next to it on the forest floor.  For this reason, this Pea-family plant is called Naked-flowered Tick Trefoil (Hylodesmum nudiflorum), a wildflower I find much less frequently than the similar Pointed-leaf Tick Trefoil it resembles. We found a number of these dainty-flowered plants today, more than I've ever found in one place before.

And oh yes, we did find ORCHIDS!  And surprisingly, we found these Downy Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera pubescens) right where I'd found them before.  Some years, there's not a sign of the flower stalks, although the beautifully patterned basal leaves might be found.  But this was our lucky year!

A second orchid we found today, this Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), was completely unexpected! None of us had ever seen this species of orchid at Bog Meadow Trail before.  And where I usually look for them at another location, not a single one has emerged this year.  Fickle flowers, orchids.

We also found some fascinating fungi.  At first, I thought that this velvety, dark-brown, pale-rimmed disc was a piece of bark, but when I pinched it I found it thick and spongey and actually quite wet, not crispy and thin and dry like a piece of bark.  I could actually squeeze water out of it, as if it were a soaked sponge. Then, when I looked underneath at its fertile surface, I could see it was a toothed fungus. My friend Sue consulted iNaturalist, which suggested Velvet Tooth (Hydnellum spongiosopes), and I believe it was correct.

A peek beneath revealed the "teethy" part of this fungus's vernacular name.

This cute custard-colored cluster of mushrooms has the equally cute common name of Yellow Jelly Baby (Leotia lubrica). Other vernacular names include Lizard Tuft (??) and Gumdrop Fungus.

I do not know the names of either the golden slug or the tiny gilled mushrooms ornamenting this mossy downed log. I just thought they were cute.

But I do know that this white-rimmed colorfully striped fungus goes by the name of Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).  Very aptly named, indeed, since "versicolor" means "various colors" and the caps are certainly colored with various different hues.  Also, this same species of fungus can fruit in a wide variety of colors, from tawny earth tones like those of this group, to dark chocolate edged with white, or royal blue alternating with schoolbus yellow, and other combinations.