Monday, March 18, 2024

Skunk Cabbage Paradise!

I know, I know, I've been posting photos of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) for a couple of weeks now. But all those specimens were total wimps compared to the gigantic ones that thrive in a swale at the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton.  I'm not sure what kind of nutrients this particular mud provides, but the Skunk Cabbage plants that grow here are prodigious both in size and in the number of spathes that constitute a cluster.  By my count, I discern EIGHT flowering spathes in this one.

As for size of individual spathes, just look at how tall these gorgeously scarlet ones have grown!

And this was my lucky day for photographing a cluster with spathes so wide open that their flowering spadices within were completely visible.  How often have I found examples where both sexes of the florets -- pistillate (top left) and staminate -- were displaying within the same plant at the same time?  Never, before I encountered this lovely clump.

Sadly, while trying to get close enough to photograph these plants, I inadvertently stepped on one. In that mishap,  my big foot crushed the spathe but did not damage the spadix within.  And what a find this spadix was!  Never before had I encountered a spadix displaying the spent pistillate florets yielding to the staminate ones emerging around the base of the pistillate ones! How cool it that?

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Finds of the Fault Line and Forest Floor

'Twas a good day for the wearin' o' the green!  So what better day than St. Patrick's Day to visit the woods at Skidmore College, where the forest floor is paved with calcareous boulders covered with moss as green as any moss that grows on the Emerald Isle!

The Skidmore campus lies right along the geological fault that brought all the mineral springs to the city of Saratoga Springs and also paved the college's 200-acre woods with limestone and chert-embedded dolomite rocks.  One might think that dry, hard rocks would not be hospitable as a home for growing plants, but here it is obvious that many mosses, liverworts, and lichens just adore it atop these rocks!  As do some ferns and a few flowering plants.  I came here today to see if any of the flowering plants were actually blooming yet.

The mosses, liverworts, and lichens were certainly looking happy.  And many of these organisms happily shared their rocks with one another, as this brown Dog Lichen-embedded, green Poodle Moss-carpeted boulder displayed.

This rock that was almost completely covered with Porella liverwort made room for a bit of Hedwigia moss.

Some fluffy clumps of Wind-swept Broom Moss clung to chunks of pale-gray rock.

And this gorgeous patch of Baby-tooth Moss is so happy here, it has produced just scads of spore stalks.

A very few flowering plants prefer the stony habitat of a rock's surface, but that's exactly where I go to look for the earliest Hepaticas, both Round-lobed and Sharp-lobed, that will soon be blooming here.  They are actually rooted within the cracks of the rocks, while spreading their leaves across the surface.  Hepatica's leaves persist intact throughout the winter, which makes them easy to find once the snow is gone from the forest floor. And some of their leaves, such as these of this Sharp-lobed Hepatica, have turned a deep purplish brown color. 

I peek beneath those leaves to espy these furry flower buds unfurling, just about ready to poke their faces above their leafy cover.

Oh! Oh! Oh!  Here, the flower buds have not only emerged from beneath some mottled-green Round-lobed Hepatica leaves, but their furry bud scales have opened to reveal the pale-purple sepals within!

These flower buds were so open, I could peer into the flowers, where the anthers were already preparing to protrude.

Just a few more warm days, and Hepaticas of all the colors they come in -- from sparkling white or pale pink or bright blue to pale lavender to deep purple and even to deep magenta -- will be adorning the forest floor with one of our prettiest as well as one of our earliest-to-bloom native spring wildflowers.

And then there were the fungi.  All that I found today had fruited last fall but persisted virtually unchanged throughout the winter. Here's just a sampling:

The caps of Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune) seem to grow fur over the winter.

I turn the Split-gill Fungus over to observe the split gills that suggested this amazing fungus's name.

Split-gill Fungus is considered the most widespread mushroom in the whole world, and one with the amazing property of being able to dry out completely and then rehydrate to keep functioning sexually time and time again. Found on every continent except Antarctica (where there's no rotting wood for it to grow on), the Split-gill Fungus is one of the most studied mushrooms on earth, according to Tom Volk, author of the wonderfully informative mushroom site,  Mr. Volk featured this mushroom in  a Valentine's Day tribute to one of the sexiest organisms imaginable, with at least 28,000 different sexes, according to mycologists' calculations.  The process is too complicated for me to repeat in my blog, but my readers can learn all about it (plus lots of other fascinating facts) by going directly to Mr. Volk's site.  Just click HERE and prepare to be amazed.

The striped caps of False Turkey Tail (Stereum ostrea) are just as beautifully colored now as when they first sprouted last fall. They can be distinguished from the real Turkey Tails by the lack of pores on the fertile surface of the caps.

We are most likely to see the rubbery brown caps of Amber Jelly Roll Fungus (Exidia recisa) on the forest floor in spring, after winter winds or ice have brought down the dead tree limbs they've grown on.

This abundant patch of Asian Beauty (Radulomyces coplandii) was so broad I failed to recognize it at first.  In the few times I have come across it before, it has always fruited in narrow strips sprouting from cracks in dead wood.  In this case, it was occupying a large chunk of peeling-away bark of a fallen tree.

Asian Beauty is thought of as relatively recent introduction to North America, having shown up only about a decade ago. Today, it has been reported from more and more places. That has definitely been my own experience, too.  It certainly produces lots and lots of spores on the slender teeth that protrude and point downward. But is it an invasive introduction?  Here's an interesting video that discusses this possibility.

Near where I have parked my car,  the edge of the geologic fault is readily observable, as the terrain falls steeply off with a series of rocky ledges.  In just a few weeks, these moss-covered ledges will be adorned with many spring wildflowers, such as Long-spurred Violets, Columbine, and Early Meadow Rue.

Meanwhile, these ledges are not without botanical interest and beauty.  I love the curvaceous and delicate-looking fronds of Maidenhair Spleenwort that emerge from deep cracks in the rock.

Another ledge-clinging plant is this little native geranium called Herb Robert, which prefers to spring from patches of cushioning moss.  These leaves have been green all winter and some show signs of how freezing can tatter them a bit.  But they will soon be replaced by new leaves as well as small pink flowers.

Readers may note that I sometimes add scientific names to the vernacular names I have called these plants and fungi.  And sometimes I do not.  More and more, I am discovering that the scientific names in my old wildflower, bryophyte, and mushroom guides are out of date.  OK, so be it.  But I can't keep up.  Happily, the vernacular names have usually stayed the same ones I have known for most of my life. Most folks know those names, too.  If I fail to include a scientific name and you want to know it, just google the vernacular name and you will probably find the most up-to-date scientific one. As I near 82 years old, I myself no longer care about being au courant!

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Spring Is Bustin' Out All Over!

 Late last week, we had just a dusting of snow.  Will this be IT?  Is winter (if we can call this puny one that) really over?  All winter long, the snow in the woods was not much good for animal tracking, but at least I got to see these bird prints last week as a Starling made a bee line to the cat chow we put out on our porch for a feral cat. I thought the bird's trail looked as pretty as an ornamental frieze.

Today, it must have been close to 70 degrees under a clear blue sky, when I visited Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park. The pond was completely clear of all ice, and no snow remained on the ground. I walked the powerline that runs just north of the pond, curious to see if the American Hazelnuts (Corylus americana) that thrive there had come into bloom.

The dangling male catkins were evident on nearly every shrub, but it requires very close examination of every twig to espy the itty bitty female flowers.  And with so many hazelnut shrubs at this site, there were thousands of twigs to examine.

Ta da!  I found some! If the sun had not caused the tiny scarlet pistils to glow like miniature Christmas lights,  I probably wouldn't have seen them, they are so small.  These flowers vie with Skunk Cabbage to be the first flowers of spring.

I was surprised to see a few clusters of hazelnuts remaining on the shrubs.  Usually, squirrels and other animals strip the shrubs of their nuts even before the nuts are fully ripe.

Aha! Holes in the nuts reveal that a female Hazelnut Weevil got there before the squirrels and bored a hole in each nut to deposit her eggs inside, where the larvae hatched and consumed the nut from within.

Well, if the American Hazelnuts are blooming now, I surmised that the Skunk Cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) that thrive in the watery ditches along the Spring Run Trail in downtown Saratoga Springs should all be in full bloom, too.  We've been finding occasional plants in bloom so far, but most plants in a given population had not yet opened by late last week. I next stopped off at the Spring Run Trail to check on the Skunk Cabbages' progress.

Oh yes, progress had occurred!  Almost every Skunk Cabbage spathe was wide open now, with interior spadices covered with blooming florets.

All along the trail, many male Alder catkins (Alnus species) were already shedding pollen, even though the smaller female flowers on the same tree had not yet opened enough to receive the pollen as it wafted on the breeze (and dusted my hand). This is the Alder's strategy to avoid self-pollination. The females will open after the pollen from their own tree has been spent, ready then to welcome the pollen wafted from neighboring trees.

And here was the first wildflower of spring that actually LOOKs like a flower!  An abundant patch of Colt's Foot (Tussilago farfara) had sprung up virtually overnight from the muddy bank of the Spring Run Creek.

What a gorgeous sunburst of bloom, with staminate disc flowers already opening, surrounded by the wispy pistils. Colt's Foot is not a native of North America, but the bees that were visiting did not apparently disparage these immigrants.

I knew that if all these other wildflowers were blooming now, I would surely find masses of two super-early bloomers in an area enclosed by an old stone wall off Parkhurst Road in Wilton:  Winter Aconite (Eranthus hyemalis) and Snowdrops (Galanthus species).  And yes, I certainly did!

I don't know if these old stone walls surround a cellar hole or a former garden, but the latter seems a more likely spot for these two non-native species, popular with home gardeners for their exceptionally early bloom time.  On other years, I have seen these flowers poking up right through the snow,

The Winter Aconite blooms are so sunny, they almost seem to produce their own warmth!

So all these flowers must indicate that winter is truly over.  Recalling a three-foot snow that fell on St. Patrick's Day a few years back, I acknowledge we might yet get a wintry surprise, but these early bloomers can all keep blooming despite such deep snowcover.  I only wish we'd had such snow this past  winter.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Visual Treats in the Late Winter Woods

While we wait for our local forest floors to be paved with colorful spring wildflowers, are there any visual treats to be found right now among the sodden and dull dead leaves that carpet the woods?  Oh, there certainly are, as some friends and I discovered this week as we ambled about a swamp-sodden woods at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Preserve on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs.

Before we even reached that swampy woods, we were halted in our tracks as we walked along an oak- and beech-leaf-littered trail.  Wow!  Just look at all these thousands of tiny snow fleas crawling and hopping about among the dry leaves!  We usually find these springtails peppering the surface of late-winter snow, but these tiny critters are active all year wherever the forest floor remains damp. 

Despite possessing six legs, snow fleas are not true insects, but instead are members of the Collembola taxonomic class, a very large class with several thousand member species found throughout the world. All are tiny, wingless hexapods that can catapult impressive distances due to a spring-loaded organ called a furcula that is tucked up tight against their abdomens.  Snow fleas are not rare at all, but it's always an unexpected treat to come upon masses of them.

And look at this!  A genuine spring wildflower!  Or should I say wildflowerS, since each of those yellow tufts adorning the interior spadix of this Skunk Cabbage spathe (Symplocarpus foetidus) is an individual male (staminate) floret, ready to offer pollen to any early pollinators. And to have those pollinators carry that pollen off to fertilize female (pistillate) florets covering the spadix of a neighboring Skunk Cabbage plant in bloom.

From the many dozens of Skunk Cabbage plants sprouting up from the muddy edges of a small creek, our friend Sue extracted two spadices, one with staminate flowers (left) and the other with pistillate ones, the sexes having bloomed sequentially, the pistillate ones first, ready to receive pollen from neighboring plants in staminate bloom. It isn't often we get to see the two kinds of florets so clearly.

The Skunk Cabbage plants were the only spring wildflowers yet to bloom, but we did find evidence that some gorgeous wildflowers will bloom here later in the summer.  This prickly green basal rosette will eventually produce a towering stalk, well over 6 feet, to be crowned with bright-pink puffy Swamp Thistle flowers (Cirsium muticum).

And here was a pretty, rosy-hued leaf that offered proof that the native wildflower called Foamflower (Tiarella stolonifera) is a regular inhabitant of this swampy woods.  The plant's new leaves have yet to appear, but when they do, they too will persist through next winter, their green color eventually yielding to this lovely pink before they fade away as new leaves emerge.

I do not know how my friend Sue Pierce managed to spy these remnants of Yellow Bartonia flowers (Bartonia virginica), nearly invisible as they were among the yellow-brown forest-floor leaves. But Sue is famous among our friends for having such keen eyesight. The tiny flowers bloomed last summer, but the then-blooming florets did not look much different than these dried pods.

These wiry stems of Dwarf Horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides) were abundant across this swampy tract, looking hardly any different from how they will appear in the summer.  Among the five species of Horsetail that thrive in this place, this is the only one that retains its green color all year. 

Oh boy, look at this gold mine of treasures for those who love mosses and liverworts!  Such a fallen log has reached the perfect stage of decomposition to provide just the right damp habitat for certain  bryophytes to thrive on. My friends are leaning in for close observation. Since many mosses require microscopic examination to determine their species, I usually fail at accurate IDs, while content to admire their beauty.

Among the beautiful mosses we found was this ample clump of lacy, fine-leaved loveliness, but it was growing on the ground instead of that log.  I am still in the process of trying to ascertain its name and will return to identify it when I do. There were tiny water droplets among its miniature leaves that caused this moss to sparkle in the light.

I did recognize this moss as a species of Fissidens (Pocket Moss), a genus that usually requires microscopic examination to identify as to species. I love its ferny appearance.

Again, I could only admire this moss without knowing its name, delighting in the delicacy of its leaves  and the drooping capsules atop its slender spore stalks.

At least I did recognize this clump of leafy liverwort with the texture of snakeskin that was sharing its space with tufts of moss poking through it. Or at least I think I do.  I learned it as Conocephalum conicum, but scientific names are constantly being changed these days, as molecular research reassigns many species. It has several interesting vernacular names, including Snakeskin Liverwort (obvious) or Great Scented Liverwort, thanks to its distinctive scent.

Liverworts come in a wide variety of textures, including this fluffy stuff that I learned to call Lovely Fuzzwort (Ptilidium pulcherimum).  The leaves of most liverworts look about the same in winter as they do the rest of the year,  making them easy to identify at any time, once we learn learn their names.

Two other liverworts shared the same rotting log as that Lovely Fuzzwort. The rusty-red ones with curling leaves is called Rustwort (Nowellia curvifolia), and the pale-green one with the toothed leaves is called Variable-leaved Crestwort (Lophocolea heterophylla). These two liverworts are often found close together, frequently intertwined.

And then there were the fungi!  It's still a bit early for even the early fruiters to show up yet, but this interesting chunky one called Ceramic Parchment (Xylobolus frustulatus) can be found on rotting wood (most often oak) all year. It does bear a resemblance to ceramic tiles fitting together, and it's just about as hard as ceramic tile, too.  Wikipedia states that the fruiting bodies are perennial, forming a new layer of spore-producing tissue on top of the old fruiting body every year.  As a result, the zone lines around the edges represent old layers of growth, much like the rings of a tree. 

The aptly-named Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) comes in a variety of beautiful colors, and it also retains much of its color through the winter.  So although these specimens likely fruited last fall and not recently, they still looked quite beautiful.

If you tried to ID this fungus by Googling "avocado-green shelf fungus" you'd not have much luck.  The fungus itself is actually the Violet-toothed Polypore (Trichaptum biforme) -- and it does have a purple edge when fresh.  It's only green now because it is covered with a green alga. Luckily, we can still identify this fungus by its distinctive pore surface, even when covered with green stuff.

Another clue to this fungus's ID requires a very close look. See all the itty bitty, almost invisibly small dark pin heads sticking up from the surface of the cap?  Those are a second fungus called Fairy Pins (Phaeocalicium polyporaeum), and they are known to prefer the caps of Violet Tooth Polypore, especially when those caps are covered with green algae.  In my experience, these Fairy Pins tend to occur most frequently quite late in the winter, after the growth of algae has succeeded in covering the caps.

Here was another shelf fungus hosting a lovely growth of green algae.  I wish I had paid attention to the species of tree it was growing on, for that might have helped me identify which shelf fungus it was.  Sue found a possibility on iNaturalist, which suggested Lumpy Bracket (Trametes gibbosa), so we could go with that. Its top was certainly quite lumpy, and Lumpy Bracket is frequently colonized by green algae.

Here's the pore surface of that fungus, displaying a maze-like texture that resembled that in photos of Lumpy Bracket.  So let's go with that name for the present.

Here was one last treat we found, and it was quite a vivid find!  At first we wondered if it was some kind of fungus that had grown on old wasp nests.  But I remembered seeing it before, many years ago, when I was surprised to discover it was not a fungus, but rather a slime mold species in its spore-producing stage, after its fruiting bodies had matured within those wasp-nest-like structures visible behind all the fluffy spore stuff. And guess what the name of this slime mold is!  Why, it's actually called the Wasp Nest Slime Mold (Metatrichia vesparium)! A visual treat, indeed!