Thursday, July 11, 2024

Braving the Heat For Mountain Mint

Oh Lord, how I hate this hot humid weather! Day after day after day with temps in the 90s with humidity to match have really put a damper on my desire to head outdoors.  So what could tempt me out to explore one of the most sun-baked habitats like this powerline pictured below? (I mean, aside from the prospect of having a botanical adventure with my good pal Sue?)

It was Mountain Mint, that's what!  A particular species of Mountain Mint called Short-toothed (or Clustered) Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), rated as a Threatened species in New York State, and never having been reported growing wild in Saratoga County.  At least, that's the species I suspect it is.  I first encountered it along this same powerline in the fall of 2022, and now that I expected it to be in flower, I wanted to see it in its prime.  And so I did!

Here's a closer look at this Mountain Mint's flower cluster. 

According to The Native Plant Trust's Go Botany, the inflorescence of P. muticum is  "very dense, only the lowest branches, if any, visible, and calyx lobes lack a tuft of long, septate hairs, though other hairs may be present."

I will have to have my suspicions confirmed by an expert botanist before I can be sure, but the density of the flower cluster as well as the breadth of the short-toothed leaves where they meet the stem (among other details) had me guessing it might indeed be this particular rare species.  I did collect a specimen to present to such an expert for examination, and I did so without fear of depleting this population. As this next photo reveals, there was no shortage of specimens I could have collected at this location. (This represents only a small portion of this population's extent.)

While my desire to collect a flowering Mountain Mint specimen was indeed my primary motivation for exploring this open powerline on this sweltering day,  it certainly turned out there were many other delights I experienced along the way.  The trailside meadows presented a kaleidoscope of gorgeous colors and textures, with native wildflowers (like this pale-purple Wild Bergamot) and introduced species (like these flower-studded spikes of Common Mullein) enhancing each other's beauty.

Then add a punch of vibrant color, like the brilliant orange of this Butterfly Milkweed!

Another surprise was a solitary Wild Bergamot bloom colored a vivid fuchsia!  Pow!

What an explosion of primary colors amplifying each other's impact: the sun-yellow blooms of Black-eyed Susan punctuated by the royal-blue spikes of Viper's Bugloss! A single stem of Fleabane joined this festive arrangement.

A few other meadow dwellers added their own beauty and color.  These bright-pink blooms are Showy Tick Trefoil, one of our showiest native wildflowers.

A bit more demure, but lovely in their own right were the pale-blue multiflora wands of Spiked Lobelia.

A few stalks of the white-flowered anemone called Thimbleweed were in the process of producing their thimble-shaped seed pods, while also providing some nutrients to a couple of inch-worm-like visitors, possibly the same species of Geometer moth larvae at different instars and colorations.

A number of shrubs,  too,  were adding their colorful beauty along the trail.  The fruits of this Chokecherry shrub were in the process of turning a glossy scarlet.

The puffy white tufts of New Jersey Tea's flowers had now yielded these handsome bi-colored seedpods of lime-green and rose.

I can't tell if this Smooth Sumac's colorful conical cluster is composed of rosy flower buds or ripening fruits.  Whichever, the clusters added their stately beauty to the whorls of pink-stalked leafy branches.

Wow!  These statuesque plants of Pokeweed, dangling clusters of both white flowers and green fruits, looked like a veritable forest of purple-trunked trees towering over our heads.

While much of this powerline was sandy and dry, there were some quite wet sections, too, where plants more accustomed to wetland habitats were thriving. There was actually some standing water at the base of these tiny-flowered plants of Water Plantain.

Mad-dog Skullcap was thriving here, too, since it does like to have its feet wet.

I often find Blue Monkeyflower growing on riverbanks, so I was not surprised to note how happy it looked near this mud puddle.

Two miniature species of St. John's Wort appeared at this damp section, including this Canada St. John's Wort, distinguished by very slender leaves and scarlet flower buds.

The flowers of Dwarf St. John's Wort are equally small, but its leaves are more broadly oval and its flower buds are green.

And oh boy, was THIS a treat!  A healthy population of Tubercled Orchids was thriving here as well, which was not so surprising, since I have never found this native orchid except in wet meadows.  Most of the plants here had fading flowers, but I did find this one whose pale-yellow florets were still intact enough to display the little protuberance ("tubercle") on the lower lip that suggested this native orchid's vernacular name. 

All these delightful floral finds sure made every drop of sweat worth the shedding, on this sweltering day.  But then, we had been equally delighted when we first explored this same powerline in the fall of 2022, discovering abundant numbers of Fringed Gentians here, along with gorgeous New England Asters in several colors, and fascinating species of liverworts and mosses.  Now that we've discovered how rich this powerline is in remarkable plants, we should be sure to visit it at several other times during the growing season.

And of course, not all of our finds this day were floral.  For sure, we detected many birds and insects we would have loved to photograph -- if only they had held still for the picture-taking! But at least these two critters did:

If there is any more beautiful beetle than a Dogbane Beetle, so shiny and colorful, I don't know what it is.  I would say it outshines even rubies and emeralds. And it's alive!

And here was an insect I'd never seen or even heard of, a Velvet Ant, scurrying across the sandy path, but not scurrying so fast I couldn't snap a photo clear enough to reveal its remarkably furry abdomen. Apparently, this is really a wasp, not an ant, and with a stinger, too, that can deliver quite a wallop (earning some species of this creature the name "cow killer"). I'm glad I didn't try to slow its scurrying by impeding its progress with my hand!

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Frolicking and Fighting Among the Florets, Redux

This was such a fun blogpost about a truly fascinating beetle, I was delighted that Facebook dredged it up again from my "Memories" file.  These gorgeous and amorous critters are at it again, frolicking and fighting among the milkweeds, so I said to myself, "why not post this entry again?"  So here it is:

With milkweeds of various species blooming now, many different insects are flocking to the fragrant Asclepias blooms, some to partake of the nectar and pollen, others to feast on the leaves.  In an earlier post, I had mentioned  the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle as one example of a leaf-eater, but the leaf-eater I find far more frequently is the Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus).  As big and bright-red as it is, it would be hard NOT to see it.  Not that it feels any need to hide.  Achieving its own toxicity by imbibing the toxic sap of the milkweed leaves,  the Red Milkweed Beetle warns off potential predators by its vivid color.  And it's also obvious this beetle feels no need to hide its amours, since I almost always encounter it unabashedly in flagrante delicto. And sometimes I see other interested parties wanting to join the party. Or at least look on.  

Here is a dramatic sequence of insect erotica I observed on one occasion:

In this particular milkweed patch, almost every plant had multiple pairs of Red Milkweed Beetles doing what comes naturally during mating season.

Was this lone beetle just a voyeur, or was he hoping to join the party over on the next milkweed leaf?

Uh oh!  Looks like he decided to move in, either to get a closer view or else to challenge his rival.

What followed was a fierce battle for dominance. Coitus interrupted, the two male beetles began to brawl, locking jaws and yanking each other this way and that. Here, the winner has flipped his rival onto his back.  As the champion backed off, the defeated one squirmed to his feet and scurried away.

At this point, my camera lens got too close to the scene of this battle, jiggled the leaf, and tipped the conqueror onto the ground. So I never got to see if he was able to continue where he left off. Chances were probably good, though, that another rival had already taken his place. It appeared that his lady had many suitors to choose from.

Monday, July 1, 2024

Flowers of a Shady Woods

Well, if you live long enough, you gotta have some way to die. And I've lived a long time: 82 years plus a few weeks, so there's no doubt my old bod might be wearing out.  Ever since my car-accident injuries last December sent me to the hospital where I got scanned head to toe,  various doctors have found something suspicious concerning diverse innards: aneurisms in my brain, nodes on my adrenal glands, shadows in my lungs, abnormalities of the female organs.  So far, I'm told I have nothing really to fear, at least for the present, but even more tests may alter that optimism.  Fingers crossed!  Meanwhile, even though I'm completely asymptomatic, I've spent more time in Imaging Centers and specialists' offices this summer than walking the woods or paddling the river.  But I have popped over to nearby woods for brief walks, and here are a few of my finds.  Few big showy flowers bloom in the deep shade of the woods in June, but even the tiny ones are worth a look.

Actually, the flower clusters of Common Elder (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) are quite big and showy, even if the individual florets are tiny.

And those tiny individual Elder florets are displayed to delightful advantage when shed to rest on a fern frond growing below. 

The plants of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens) are indeed quite tall, some towering over my head.  But the florets themselves are dainty and wispy.  So brilliantly white, they almost seem to sparkle in the dense shade of the woods.

The tiny flowers of Virginia Stickseed (Hackelia virginiana) look so cute and innocent right now, one might never suspect that their prickly seedpods are one of the most difficult stickers to remove from clothing.

Enchanter's Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) has such wee wispy florets, it is very hard to force my camera to focus on them.  This shot was reasonably successful.  The botanical name, Circaea, comes from the Greek mythological enchantress Circe, who was known for her knowledge of herbs and potion-making skills. In the late 16th century, botanists believed Circe used the herb to charm Odysseus' companions, which led to the common name Enchanter's Nightshade.  However,  this plant is not in the Nightshade Family at all, but rather in the Evening Primrose Family (Onagraceae).

The florets of Lopseed (Phryma leptostachya) are just about as small as those of Enchanter's Nightshade, but their pretty pink color helps me discern them among all the greenery of the mid-summer shady woods.  I have found them only in calcareous woodlands or on limestone walls, and I do feel lucky to find them in bloom, when the florets stand out from the stalk.  When they go to seed, the pods will lie flat to the stalk, which is where the name "Lopseed" came from.

Here's another pink mid-summer woodland wildflower, Pointed-leaf Tick Trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum). The long slender flower stalk springs from the center of a whorl of pointed leaves.  There is a second wildflower, the Naked Tick Trefoil,  that has very similar flowers and which could be confused with this one, except that its flowers grow on a stalk that springs directly from the ground next to the leaves, instead of from the center of whorled leaves. The shape of the florets makes it obvious that this plant belongs to the Pea Family.

I was delighted to find this specimen of Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana), since it quite clearly displays the transition from floret to berry.  Earlier, the small spidery flowers dangle unseen below a top-tier of whorled leaves, but eventually stiffen their stems to stand above those whorled leaves as the greenish petals and three-parted rusty-brown stigmas drop off and the round berries take shape. The berries will ripen to a glossy blue-black, set among leaves that in autumn will be stained with a lovely red center.  As this plant's common name suggests, its root does indeed taste similar to cucumber, but it yields such a small bite per plant, it would be a waste of effort to dig it for food and thus destroy the plant.

And if you were to destroy the plant, you would never get to see how remarkably beautiful it would be come September:

I sure hope that by September, all these medical tests I've been taking will have signaled an "all clear" healthwise, or any conditions revealed have been successfully treated.