Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ausable and Boquet River Associations Hosting Native Plant Sales

The Ausable and Boquet River Associations (AsRA and BRASS) will host native plant sales offering gardeners a selection of plants native to northern NY and the Adirondacks. A Master Gardener will also be present to offer gardening advice.

BRASS will host a sale tomorrow, on Friday, June 25 from 9-1pm at the Elizabethtown Farmer’s Market located on Hand Avenue. AsRA will host a sale this Sunday, June 27 from 9-2pm at the Keene Valley Farmer’s Market located at Marcy Field. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adirondack Wintergreens: A Plethora of Pyrolas

Now that summer is here, finding woodland wildflowers can be more of a challenge. Gone are the flashy, brightly blossomed sprites that flourished in the spring sunshine. The dark shade cast by the trees and shrubs hides the nourishing rays of our closest star. Still, if one takes the time to look, and knows where to cast one’s gaze, one can find a few shy flowers that prefer the dimmer light. I give you the pyrolas.

Pyrolas, commonly known as wintergreens, even though they are not THE wintergreen made famous in flavorings and linaments, are small inconspicuous plants that dot many of our forest floors. Overall they are unimpressive, their leaves no more than a green rosette that clings tightly to the ground. But from the center of this rosette rises a slender stalk, and from this stalk the flower(s) droop(s).

Most common in our mixed northern woods is shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica). Its flowers are a greenish white, and, like all pyrolas, hang downwards as though the plant were nodding off to sleep. If you tilt a blossom upward and take a close look (a hand lens comes in real handy about now, or a macro lens on your camera), you’ll see some of the other traits of this clan of flowers.

For example, sticking out from the center, extending well beyond the reach of the petals, is the style – part of the female productive system. The tip of the style supports the stigma, which is the part that receives the pollen. On pyrolas, the stigma is flared, or sometimes lobed, and it acts as a landing platform for the flower’s insect pollinators, most of which are flies.

Surrounding the style are the stamens, the male parts. At the tip of each stamen is the anther, which produces the pollen. Now, what’s really cool about the anthers is that they look like straws: hollow at the tip. Go ahead and grab a hand lens and take a good close look. The tips have holes! They remind me of some of the anemones one sees waving about on coral reefs. It is from these holes that the pollen is shed.

The pollen, which you will not likely see, is sticky. When the flies come in to sup at the flower, the pollen is shed upon and sticks to their furry bodies. The flies travel from flower to flower, and the pollen is transferred from their bodies to the sticky stigma. From here the pollen travels down the style to the ovary and voila! the plant is fertilized.

Pyrolas are fascinating in other ways as well. For example, they have a close relationship with the local fungi. The soil all around us is full of mycelia, the vegetative structures of many fungi. The pyrolas are what scientists call mycoheterotrophs, meaning they acquire nutrients by feeding off these mycelia. It’s a parasitic relationship. In and of itself, this isn’t all that unusual, for many forest plants have similar relationships with fungi. What makes the pyrolas stand out, however, is that they can also survive completely photosynthetically – they can make their own food. It seems that the parasitic relationship is optional for them. From what I’ve been able to determine in the literature, the exact nature of this plant’s relationship with (and without) the fungi is not well understood. There could be a good research project in this, just waiting for the right graduate student to unlock the secret.

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to see several of our local pyrolas in bloom, including the pink, or bog, pyrola (P. asarifolia), which is a threatened species in New York State. With a little scouting around our forest floors, especially damp woodlands, you, too, can add shinleaf pyrola, one-flowered pyrola (P. secunda), one-sided pyrola (Moneses uniflora), green-flowered (P. virens)* and round-leaf pyrola (P. rotundifolia) to your life list. And if the flower gods are smiling on you, you can also add the pink pyrola, a real treat to any nature nut, even if flowers are not your passion.

* this is the one pictured above


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Adirondack Weather: Cloud Gazing

Who among us hasn’t spent some time gazing at the clouds? Perhaps we have lain in a grassy field or lawn and looked for shapes in the puffy white blobs that floated lazily across the blue expanse above. Or we watched the sky catch fire at the setting (or rising) of the day. For some, maybe the only relevance of clouds is whether they will produce rain (or hail, or snow, or a tornado). Regardless of the specific nature of our relationships with clouds, we have them.

For me, I am most fascinated by the shapes and colors clouds can assume. The absolute best cloud formation I’ve seen was here in the Adirondacks. I was driving back from Ray Brook and there in the sky was a herd of banthas* – must’ve been a hundred of them. Each cloud was the same shape, and as they slowly changed, they changed in unison. It was pretty amazing.

Clouds, at least here on Earth, are made from condensed water vapor.** It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Warm air absorbs water vapor (this is why winter air is dry), and warm air rises. As the warm, moist air rises, it cools. As it cools, the water condenses into droplets, or ice crystals. If enough of these droplets are close enough together, they form a visible mass we call a cloud.

Why are clouds white? And why are they not always white? This has to do with how light bounces on, around, off, water particles. Take your average cloud – it’s large, it’s deep, and it is highly reflective of all wavelengths of light within the visible spectrum. In other words, it reflects all light we can see, and thus it looks white (the color white is made up of all the colors). As the sunlight penetrates further into the cloud, it is scattered more and more, leaving less to be reflected. This is why the bottoms of clouds are often darker, even grey. Think rain clouds. These are very dense – lots of condensed water vapor.

We’ve all see clouds that are red, orange and pink – glorious shades that show up when the sun is low on the horizon. These colors, however, are not IN the clouds, though. These colors appear as reflections from the sun. A great explanation I found for this is that it is the same as if you shone a red flashlight onto a sheet – the sheet reflects the red light, it doesn’t turn red itself.

But some clouds look bluish, or greenish, or even yellowish. These are all structural. For example, the blueish-grey clouds are caused from light scattering within the cloud. Blues and greens are short wavelength colors and are very easily scattered by the water droplets (reds and oranges are long wavelengths, and they are reflected, see paragraph above).

If you see a green cloud, it is that color because the sunlight is being scattered by ice instead of water droplets. This can be a clue to weather prognosticators as to what kind of weather we can expect (hail, snow, tornadoes). Yellow clouds are apparently quite rare, and their color tends to come from pollutants in the atmosphere, like smoke.

Then there are iridescent clouds. These are very uncommon. Iridescent clouds usually sport pastel colors, looking much like mother-of-pearl. Sometimes, however, their colors can be quite intense. Iridescent clouds are formed when the light shines through thin clouds (often the edges of clouds) made from nearly uniform droplets. Each ray of light strikes one droplet and all the droplets participate in cumulative diffraction, the end result of which is a cloud that shimmers with all the visible colors.*** I’ve only seen this once, and that was because I was wearing polarized sunglasses at the time – dark glasses can help make these events visible. It was amazing.

Cloud gazing isn’t something that should be left to children or the idle. Everyone should take the time to watch the clouds. Not only can it be a relaxing activity (can an activity be relaxing?), but it can also be informative. Just think, our ancestors knew their clouds and had a weather sense that most of us have lost today, traded in for the ease of technology. Sometimes I think our ancestors had the better plan.

* For those who don’t get this reference, banthas are the creatures from “Star Wars” that the Sand People and Tuskan Raiders rode. They are imaginary, obviously, but even so, that’s exactly what the clouds looked like.

** Clouds can form on any moon or planet that has an atmosphere, but this doesn’t mean they are made from water vapor. Venus’s clouds are made of sulfuric acid. On Mars, they are made of ice. If you go to Jupiter and Saturn, be prepared for ammonia clouds, and if you travel to Uranus or Neptune, you’ll find the clouds are made from methane gas. Even outer space has clouds made of space debris – these are often called nebulae.

***ROYGBIV


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Short History of the Moose River Plains

The Moose River Plains Wild Forest, sitting between Route 28 and the West Canada Lake Wilderness in Hamilton and Herkimer counties, is a bit of an Adirondack political and natural history wonder.

The gravelly, flat, grassy “plains” of the Moose and Red Rivers are a significant contrast to the rest of the Adirondack Park and one of it’s more unique (and popular) features. Although it’s hard to know for sure, indications from various studies and permit requests suggest that about 50,000 people use the plains each year (not including the some 500 campsites bordering the area, and the incidental use generated by those in the hamlets of Inlet, Raquette Lake and Indian Lake). “The Plains,” as the area is known, was also the site of one of the region’s legendary environmental conservation fights of the last 100 years. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Adirondack Plants: Indian Cucumber Root

Now is the time to hit the woods if you want to find Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), for not only are its two-tiered leaves quite visible, but it is now bursting into blossom, and these are flowers you simply have to see.

Indian cucumber root is a member of the lily family, which to many of us seems odd, since lily leaves look rather like green tongues sticking out of the ground. However, if you look closely, you will see that the veins on the leaves run parallel to each other on the cucumber root as well as the other lily family members. This is a trait to look for when you are out botanizing.

When the plant is young, or when it lacks the energy to reproduce, it produces only one whorl of leaves. At this point in time, it is easily mistaken for starflower, although the latter’s leaves vary in size from less than an inch to almost three inches, and the leaf veins are not parallel to each other (it is not a lily). When conditions are right, however, stand back and wait to be impressed.

In some areas where it grows, Indian cucumber root can reach heights upwards of two feet. About half way up, it sports a whorl of five to nine leaves, all the same length. From the center of this whorl, the stem continues its skyward journey, ending in a second set of about three smaller leaves. There is nothing else out there that looks like this.

From now until the end of the summer, when you find one of these plants, you should look beneath the upper set of leaves for the yellowish-green nodding flowers. Take a close look at these flowers, for they are quite intriguing. The pale petals fold back, like a Turk’s cap lily, and from the center emerge three long reddish styles (part of the female reproductive bits) and several purple stamens. The color combination is striking, and the styles almost give the flower a spidery appearance.

Once fertilized, the flowers slowly convert into fruits. During this conversion, the flowers lose their droop. The pedicles straighten so that the purple-blue berries stand erect above the top tier of leaves.

Many people are most interested in this plant’s edibility. Historically, the native peoples of eastern North America dug the rhizomes* for food as well as medicine. The small white rhizomes, which measure only one to three inches in length, are reputed to have a cool, crisp, cucumbery taste, and are good eaten raw or lightly cooked with other vegetables. Doug Elliot, who is famous for his wildcrafting, writes that he took first place at the Fryeburg Fair for his Indian cucumber root pickles.

Today, however, the plants are not terribly common, and in Florida and Illinois they are listed as endangered. Because most of us do not need to wildcraft for our food, it is best to simply file away the information about the edibility of this plant under the category of interesting plant lore rather than actually harvesting it for a meal. Also, we should keep in mind that plants growing on state land are all protected by state law, so it is not legal to harvest them.

Edibility aside, this is still a spiffy plant, and one that is very easy to identify in the moist woodlands of the Adirondack Park. A quick jaunt down any of the VIC’s trails will likely yield at least a half-dozen of these plants. Stop on by and take a gander at them.

* Rhizomes are essentially horizontal stems, which usually grow underground. Stolons are also underground stems, but they sprout off from the main stem. Tubers, which the edible part of Indian cucumber roots are often called, are the swollen tips of rhizomes or stolons and are used by the plant for storage (eg: potatoes).


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Adirondack Entomology: Appreciating Jumping Spiders

I like spiders. They are clever, they are colorful, they are beneficial. Spiders come in a stunning array of sizes, shapes and colors. Some build webs to catch their food, others go fishing, while still others hunt by ambush. With the exception of a few truly venomous species, which most of us will never encounter, there is really very little about spiders to dislike. Still, many people find them creepy and go through life squashing any spider they meet. It’s a sad state of affairs, but some folks simply refuse to see anything beautiful in spiders.

Today I’d like to introduce you to one of our more interesting spiders: the zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus). This is a tiny spider, measuring 4-8mm if it is a female, 4-6mm if it is a male. It has black and white markings that make us think of zebras, and hence the name. But what really draws me to this spider are its eyes.

Like all jumping spiders, the zebra jumper has excellent vision. This isn’t just because it has eight eyes, but because two of those are huge, face forward, and have moveable retinas. What this all boils down to is binocular vision that can track moving objects.

If your head was held immobile, you could still move your eyes to watch what is happening around you. The jumping spiders cannot move their eyeballs, but they can move the retinas in those two large front eyes. This comes in very handy if you make your living stalking and pouncing on your food.

Jumping spiders, especially these little zebra jumpers, are famous for watching things, like those who are observing them. Give it a try the next time you see one of the little fellows. All you have to do it lean in close and it will turn its body and move its head so that it’s looking directly at you. You can tell when it’s looking at you by noticing the color of the eyes. As the retinas move, the eye color changes. When it is totally black, you are being watched.

Next, hold your finger a foot or so in front of the spider’s face. Move it around. Odds are, the spider will focus on your finger, tracking it with its eyes and moving its head to keep it within sight.

As mentioned, these spiders have eight eyes, which are arranged in a line around the spider’s head, kind of like Geordi LaForge’s visor. The two large ones on the front are flanked by two smaller ones that are also forward facing. The remaining two pairs are placed further back along the sides of the spider’s head (technically, this is the cephalothorax, which is a body unit that combines both the head and the thorax). The end result is that jumping spiders have peripheral vision that enables them to see all the way around their bodies. Sure wish I could do that!

Jumping spiders are diurnal, and you can likely find them near, or even in, your house. Look for them on sunny days hanging out on walls, fences or plants, where they will be hunting. When another spider or insect comes along, the jumping spider sizes it up. Most prey items are smaller than the spider, but the zebra jumper has been known to take down mosquitoes, which are up to two times its own size. Like a cat, these spiders slowly sneak up on their prey from behind and then pounce, immobilizing the meal with a quick bite. (Yes, they are venomous, as all spiders are, but their venom won’t hurt you, assuming they bit you, which they are highly unlikely to do since you are way too big for them to eat.)

Safety is always a priority, though, or it should be, and jumping spiders follow this rule, too. Before leaping after a potential prey item, a jumping spider will anchor itself to the surface on which it is standing. This is done by gluing a strand of silk to the surface. This is about the only time these spiders spin out silk, for they don’t build webs. (The other occasion which calls for silk-spinning is when the female makes her egg sac.) Now, should the spider miss its prey or tumble out into space, it is tethered to a solid object and need only climb back up its silken ladder to safety and a new attempt to catch some food.

Having spiders in our houses is really kind of nice, when you think about it, for they consume all the other insects that also live there. Don’t think you have insects in your house? Well, that could be because the spiders are doing their jobs. So the next time you see a spider in your house, think twice about killing it. Even evicting it isn’t a solution, for it will likely find its way back in. And, just in case you were wondering, most spiders found in your home are species that have evolved over thousands of years to live in human abodes. If you chuck them outside, they will just return, for su casa es mi casa is their motto. And really, for the services they render, they ask only for very little: a dark corner in which to set up housekeeping. It’s worth it in my book.

Photo: Zebra Jumper (Salticus scenicus). Photo by Olaf Leillinger for WikiCommons.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Let’s Eat: Adirondack Ginseng

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a perennial herb, once proliferated along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Alabama. It is similar to Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and was one of the first herbs to be harvested and sold commercially. The name “ginseng” comes from the Chinese word “jen-shen” which means “in the image of a man,” a reference to the shape of the mature root, which resembles the human body.

Wild ginseng in China and Korea has been relatively rare for centuries, a result of over harvesting. It was discovered in central New York in 1751. By the late 18th century, Albany, New York had become a center of trade in ginseng. Most Adirondack ginseng was exported to China where it was (and is) used as a popular remedy.

By the middle of the 19th century, wild American ginseng was in danger of being eradicated by “shang” hunters, who dug up the brittle roots for sale to wholesale enterprises. Horticulture experts and private citizens alike experimented with cultivating the herb.

The September 5, 1906 issue of the Malone Farmer featured a front-page ad: “Wanted—People to grow Ginseng…Any one can do it and grow hundreds of dollars worth in the garden. Requires little ground.” F.B. Mills, of Rose Hill, NY, provided seeds and instructions (at cost) and a promise to buy the mature roots at $8.00 per pound.

Ginseng farming takes patience. It grows in cool, shady areas, in acidic soils such as are found in hardwood forests. The larger and older the root—which can live 100 years or more—the more it is worth. Ginseng is relatively easy to cultivate, but one must wait for the plants to mature over the course of 5-10 years before seeing a return on investment.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the 20th century, ginseng farming was common, and held the promise of great profit. The July 16, 1908 edition of the Fort Covington Sun ran a headline proclaiming “PUT GREAT FAITH IN GINSENG. Chinese Willing to Pay Fabulous Prices for Roots.” In 1904 a Plattsburgh paper reported that L.A. Childs of Chazy “will make an extensive exhibit of this product at the coming Clinton county fair, and this will be the first public exhibit of it ever made in Northern New York.” Three years later Miss Melissa Smith of St. Johnsville, “probably the only woman in America who grows ginseng for a living,” was reported to have roots valued at more than $10,000.

The actual medical benefits of ginseng have been disputed in Western medicine for centuries. The September 19, 1900 issue of the Malone Farmer expressed the opinion that “The ginseng trade is the most extraordinary in the world. American doctors believe it to be practically valueless as a medicine, or at the most about as potent as licorice.” Users claim it increases energy, prolongs life, and induces a feeling of wellbeing.

The Adirondack Museum’s permanent collection includes this ginseng root harvester, used in Franklin County during the late 19th century. Ginseng is never pulled from the ground. Whole, unbroken roots have the greatest value. This tool was used to dig the soil around the plant, some six inches away from the stem. Once the soil around the root was removed, the shang hunter could lift the root out and carefully brush away the dirt.

The market value of ginseng has risen and fallen over the centuries, but it remains an important forest crop. In 1977, the US Fish and Wildlife Service imposed restrictions on the sale of ginseng under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. New York State, as well as most states in the Northeast, tightly regulates the sale and harvest of ginseng. No wild ginseng may be harvested on state lands.

Photo: Ginseng Root Harvester Found in Tupper Lake, NY ca. 1850-1890. Courtesy the Adirondack Museum (2001.38.2).


Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Great Adirondack Birding Celebration

This weekend marks the 8th Annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration, hosted by the Adirondack Park Agency’s Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smiths. This annual event draws as many as 400 visitors to the region. This year participants have come from throughout the Northeast down to Maryland and Virginia and as far away as Texas. Highlights of the Celebration include field trips both Saturday and Sunday mornings led by local experts to to birding hotspots such as Bloomingdale Bog, Madawaska, Spring Pond Bog, Whiteface Mountain, as well as the Paul Smiths VIC. Birders hope to see boreal bird specialities such as the Black-backed Woodpecker, shown at the left, as well as Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and many northern warblers. More than 160 species have been seen over the eight years of this birding festival. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water Avens: Understated Wildflower Elegance

It was about three years ago that I first stumbled upon water, or purple, avens (Geum rivale), a native perennial of some of our soggier soils. I was walking along the Sage Trail, just crossing the boardwalk that rises above a boggy area, when my eyes were caught by a rather unusual flower. It’s purplish, brownish, reddish, yellowish colors stood out while at the same time serving to conceal the flower in its sun- and shade-dappled home. I plunked myself right down on the boardwalk and took out my field guide; I had to know what it was.

Since then, I have encountered water avens on several occasions, and every time I stop and marvel, for this unassuming wildflower is yet another perfect example of one of Mother Nature’s hidden beauties. Not showy like pink ladies slippers, not fragrant like balsam poplar, not social like daisies, it hangs out in habitats that are seldom visited by casual travelers, where its subtle coloration keeps it fairly well hidden.

Water avens is in the rose family, and I’ve seen photographs of the flower that show a definite rose-like form, but when I look at it, I’m more readily reminded of columbines; perhaps that is because dark outer sepals protect the often yellow inner petals, a combination seen in our wild columbines. Not only that, but the flowers droop, their faces hang towards the ground, another columbine-like quality.

When it comes into bloom, this flower attracts several insect pollinators, primarily bumble bees, but also a few flies (like the syrphids) and beetles. However, on the off chance that no insects come around, the plant has a back-up plan. As each flower grows, its stigmas (the female part) ripen first, which prevents self-pollination. Maturation continues, though, and the stamens (the male parts) continue to elongate as they ripen. Eventually the stamens shed their pollen on any remaining stigmas that have not already been cross-pollinated thanks to the efforts nectar- and pollen-seeking insects.

Once fertilized, hooked seeds develop. This is another great survival strategy, for thanks to those hooks, the seeds can hitchhike on the fur of some passing animal to take up housekeeping in a new location, thus spreading the range of the plant beyond its own back yard.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am interested in the uses to which people have put plants over the years. Some plants have rich histories, full of all sorts of lore and superstition. Others have nothing more to recommend them than their names and locations. I was expecting water avens to fall into the latter category, but one of its common names made me suspect I was wrong: chocolate root.

It turns out that water avens has quite an extensive history of usage, both medicinal and culinary. Many native peoples used it to treat a variety of ailments associated with the stomach, digestion, and even the common cold. In truth, it has anti-inflammatory properties, is antiseptic, and can induce sweating, making it good for treating fevers. I even read that the dried root can be used as a moth repellent. Its most intriguing use, however, was as a substitute for hot chocolate. The rootstock was boiled and made into a chocolate-like beverage. I knew I liked this plant!

Water avens is in bloom from now until the summer ends, so you have a pretty good chance of finding one if you visit wetlands. There is a fair amount of variation in the color of the petals, however. Some are purple, others pink, and still others are yellow. Regardless of petal color, the sepals are dark purple, and the flower droops – both characteristics that are bound to catch your eye. A delightful flower, it is well worth the search to find.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Project Silkmoth Hopes to Census Elusive Insect

Seen any good silkmoths lately? Janet Mihuc, a Paul Smith’s College professor, wants to know. Mihuc, associate professor and director of the college’s biology and environmental science programs, is leading Project Silkmoth, an 11-week census of those insects this spring and summer.

People who see silkmoths anywhere north of a line running from Oswego through Utica and Saratoga Springs between May 15 and July 30 can report their findings on a form available at www.projectsilkmoth.org. Instructions for filling out the forms, as well as photos of silkmoths and other guides to finding them, are also online. Forms will be accepted through September 1.

Mihuc will compile the results and add them to the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, a project coordinated by Paul Smith’s College seeking to catalog every species in the park.

While some research indicates that silkmoth populations are declining in the Northeast, Mihuc hopes the project yields more data on the topic.

Despite their showy patterns and wingspans up to 6 inches, silkmoths can be an elusive target. Part of the reason is that most of the moths are nocturnal and live for just a week as adults, Mihuc said. “Many people have never seen one simply because they have such a short adult life span, they are only attracted to certain light sources and they have no chemical protection against predation so they are juicy targets for birds or small mammals,” she said. They’re also falling prey to a parasitic fly introduced to control gypsy moths. So the time to catalog them is now, she added.

“A decade ago, a survey like this would have been much more difficult, but easy access to photos, information and correspondence via the Internet make this survey a reality and a learning opportunity for participants,” she said.

For more information about the project, e-mail silkmoth@paulsmiths.edu.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bunchberry: Fast Flowers in the Adirondack Park

One of the signature plants of the North Country is just starting to bloom: bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). This low-growing plant, which reaches towering heights of 2-8”, is actually considered a shrublet, and in many aspects it is identical to its more southerly relative the flowering dogwood.

Take a walk through almost any patch of Adirondack woods now and you are bound to see this striking plant. It’s four green leaves, with their gently curving veins, are smartly offset behind the four white bracts that are often mistaken as the plant’s petals. It’s only the diligent nature nut, who gets down on his hands and knees to look closely at the plant, who will see the actual flowers, for they are the tiny bits that form what the rest of the world thinks is the center of a white-petaled flower.

And it is these tiny flowers that have amazed and stunned the world of natural science. With the assistance of a good handlens, you can see the flowers up close. When closed, they look pretty unassuming, with four small greenish-white petals that come together at their tips. One of these petals has a awn, or a hair-lik projection, at its tip. So far, none of this is particularly impressive. What happens when that awn is touched, however, rocked the science world.

Bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, are some of this plant’s primary pollinators. As they fly from plant to plant, they brush against these hair triggers. With a speed that is unmatched by any other living thing, the petals burst open. At the same time, the stamen (part of the male reproductive structure) is driven forward by water pressure built up in its cells. Along the stamen are hinged structures containing the pollen. With a force that would pulverize any space ship at the launch pad, the pollen is flung upwards away from the plant and driven deep into the fuzzy hairs covering the unsuspecting bees. Completely unaware of what has happened, the bees fly off to the next plant and get peppered with more pollen while at the same time shedding some pollen from previous explosions.

The end result of all this pollen flinging is, hopefully, the production of small, bright red berries, which are terribly popular with a wide variety of wildlife. Spruce grouse, moose and veeries are among the many animals that frequently dine upon the lightly apple-flavored fruits. Even people can eat them, and apparently bunchberry jelly is a treat for those who go through the efforts to make it. In the 19th century bunchberries were popularly used to thicken plum puddings.

A denizen of cool, acidic soils, bunchberry cannot tolerate having its roots in dirt that exceeds 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, it can survive all but the most severe of forest fires. In other words, this is an ideal plant for our boreal forests.

If you miss seeing it bloom this week, fret not, for bunchberry continually reblooms throughout the growing season. Any time from now until the snow flies, if you find yourself walking past a cluster of dwarf dogwoods, hunker on down and give one of the plants a gentle poke. If you are lucky, you might witness a puff of pollen as the plant tries to enlist your finger in its quest to pass its genes into the future.


Monday, May 31, 2010

Celebrating the Life of Clarence Petty

On Sunday morning, the Wild Center hosted a memorial celebration of the life of Clarence Petty, the ardent conservationist who died last fall at 104.

The Wild Center showed two films about Clarence. After a brunch, several longtime friends and colleagues spoke about Clarence’s passion for protecting Adirondack wilderness.

As serious as Clarence was about preservation, anyone who met him was struck by his sense of humor and friendly manner.

Clarence had lots of stories from his long, rich life. He spent the first years of his life in a squatter’s cabin on the Forest Preserve. He grew up in the tiny hamlet of Coreys on the edge of the woods, a virtual frontier in those days, and went on to become a manager in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a forest ranger, a state pilot, and an indefatigable defender of the Adirondacks.

Most of the speakers at the memorial celebration, such as Michael Carr, Barbara Glaser, David Gibson, and Peter O’Shea, had known Clarence for decades and regaled the audience with one humorous anecdote after another. I particularly enjoyed Carr’s story about the time Clarence mistakenly air-dropped a load of trout over a fisherman. Thinking he may have killed or injured the fellow, Clarence flew back over the pond and saw him raising his hands in thanks.

I didn’t know Clarence as well as those folks, but as the editor of the Adirondack Explorer, I had the chance to speak with him many times in the last decade of his life. Every two months, I interviewed him for a feature called “Questions for Clarence,” which the Explorer published from 2004 until Clarence’s death.

The questions covered just about every topic under the sun, but often I would try to get Clarence to reveal what bit wisdom he would like to pass on to posterity. He kept on returning to his faith in democracy. He believed that if the people were allowed to vote on the important issues facing the Adirondack Park, they would opt to protect it.

By “the people,” he meant the people of the whole state, since the Forest Preserve is owned by all of them. The difficulty is that many of the Park’s residents don’t like outsiders making decisions that affect their lives. Hence, the continuing animosity toward the Adirondack Park Agency.

To this, Clarence had an answer. He described the Park’s wild lands, especially the Forest Preserve, as “the magnet” that draws tourists to the Adirondacks. The more wildness that is preserved, the greater the appeal to tourists. And tourists are money.

In short, protecting the Park is good for the economy–and hence good for the people who live here.

Despite his best efforts, Clarence failed to convince everyone of that point of view. But the argument will be carried forth by those he did reach.

You can find out more about Clarence Petty’s life in this remembrance by Dick Beamish, the founder of the Adirondack Explorer.

Photo by Phil Brown: Clarence Petty memorabilia at the Wild Center.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Overlooked Adirondack Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

Birders love their birds, and botanists love their flowers; rock-hounds love their rocks and minerals, and entomologists love their insects. But who loves the grasses, sedges and rushes? Even though some members of this group of plants have become global celebrities (wheat, corn, rye), most are overlooked by the majority of people, or at least they are in this country, where the knowledge of local plant life is no longer vital to our daily survival.

Those who took a basic botany course in college probably learned some version of the rhyme “Sedges have edges and Rushes are round; Grasses have joints where elbows are found,” an amusing bit of poetry designed to help students learn which of these plants were which. As with all such things, there is an element of truth in it, but every rule has its exceptions.

Learning to tell grasses from sedges from rushes can be a challenge and one that not too many are willing to tackle. We like grass in our lawns and not in our gardens (unless it is ornamental), but there our knowledge ends. In an effort to try and stimulate a little interest in these seemingly “boring” plants, let me share some quick descriptors from Grasses, an Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown.

We’ll start with grasses. Grasses have (usually) round stems that are (mostly) hollow, and long narrow leaves with parallel veins. When you get to the part of the stem where the leaf is attached, the stem is solid and a little node or joint is formed. The base of the leaf (called the sheath) wraps around the stem at this joint. On grasses the sheath is split open along part of its length. When a grass blooms, its flowers grow in two rows along the stalk. The base of the flowering portion of the plant has two empty scales (no flowers inside).

Sedges can look a lot like grasses to the untrained eye. Keep in mind, though, that they have solid stems, and their stems are often, but not always, triangular (hence, they have “edges”). The leaves, which are also long, narrow and have parallel veins, wrap around the stem, too, but their sheaths are entirely closed. The flowers grow in a spiral around the stalk, and there are no empty scales at the base of the flowering section. You will tend to find sedges in cooler and wetter areas than grasses.

This brings us to rushes. Rushes are round (but then, so are most grass stems). Their leaves are also similar to those of the grasses and sedges: long, narrow, and with parallel veins. Their stems can be solid or hollow. Unlike the grasses, however, they don’t have nodes/joints. And unlike the grasses and sedges, their flowers are terribly tiny and occur in a circle at the very tip of the stem. Described as lily-like, the flowers have three petals and three sepals. Like the sedges, rushes prefer cool, damp habitats.

Recently a friend and I were out exploring the Ice Meadows of the Hudson River, just outside Warrensburg. This is a special habitat that runs for about 16 miles along the course of the river, where the heavy snows and ice of winter collect to depths often in excess of ten feet. Spring thaws send these small glaciers grinding along the river, scouring the cobble-strewn shore and rocky upthrusts of all but the most tenacious of plants. Anything tall and resembling a shrub stands very little chance of surviving the seasonal onslaught. The end result is one of New York’s few native grasslands. But don’t expect to find something that looks like the prairies of the Midwest. These grasslands would probably be better named “rocklands,” but the term Ice Meadows suits.

Our goal this particular morning was to find and photograph dwarf sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), a lovely sprawling plant that is on the state’s protected species list. We found it blooming in all its glory and immortalized it in pixels. The highlight of the walk for me, however, was a sedge.

Like most folks, I haven’t taken the time to try and learn many grasses, sedges or rushes. Oh, I have a of couple books, and on more than one occasion I have declared I’m going to learn them, but soon they seem overwhelming in their similarity and difficulty to ID. In truth, however, there are plenty of differences if we just take the time to learn them.

This particular plant caught my eye because of its lovely colors (see photo above). I had never seen such a grass (which I incorrectly thought it was) before. The black and green striped scales were stunningly beautiful. I was seized by its splendor like a teenager dazzled by a movie star.

My botany buddy told me that it was Buxbaum’s sedge (Carex buxbaumii), a threatened species in New York State. This was another target species for our trip here, although admittedly it was secondary to the dwarf sand cherries. Most of them weren’t blooming yet, but that was fine by me, for it was the bicolored pistallate scales that had me enthralled.

It turns out that Buxbaum’s sedge, also called brown bog sedge, is a circumpolar species that has a global status of G5 (secure), while in NY its abundance is listed as S2 (imperiled). It was named after Johann Christian Buxbaum, a German botanist who lived from 1693 until 1730. I’m not sure if he “discovered” this plant or not – sources have not been forthcoming on this point. As for the label “brown bog sedge”, well, it likes wet, boggy areas, and the stripes on its scales are actually brown, not black.

The delightful discovery of this unassuming plant has renewed my interest in learning my grasses, sedges and rushes. A daunting task, perhaps, but not impossible. With the added incentive of hanging out with other amateur botanists whose knowledge of plants is nothing short of impressive, I feel pretty confident that this summer I will master at least a few of these treasures that are hidden in plain sight.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carpenter Ants: Marching One by One

It happens every year. The heat of summer arrives and the ants are on the move. I usually first see them in the evening when I take the dog for his walk, and then again the next morning. The apparent migration lasts for several days. Who are these ants, where are they going and what are they doing? I had to know.

First I needed to know what kind of ant I was encountering. I headed out last night with my camera and attempted to photograph some of these insects. It seems that whenever I need a close-up of a plant, the wind blows. Likewise, when I need a close-up of an insect, it insists on continuously moving… rapidly. Still, determination was on my side and I finally captured a couple images that were good enough for ID.

I suspected these were carpenter ants simply because of their size. My insect field guide has images of two carpenter ants: the western carpenter ant and the black carpenter ant, the latter of which is common here in the east. But, my ant is not totally black; it has a red thorax. I needed a better ID source.

Once more, www.bugguide.net came to the rescue. Within half an hour of posting my photos the answer came back: Camponotus noveboracensis, the New York carpenter ant. This is a nearctic species, which basically means it is found in the northern parts of North America. How lucky are we New Yorkers to have a carpenter ant named after us?

When it comes to carpenter ants, most of us have an understandable aversion, for they can be the bane of the homeowner’s existence. When I bought my house, the insurance company went over details of my policy with me over the phone. One comment that the agent made has always stuck with me: we don’t have termites up here, so we don’t have to worry about that. But she said nothing about carpenter ants.

Termites eat wood; carpenter ants do not. Still, carpenter ants are not called “carpenter” for whim alone. These large ants live in wood. A newly fertilized queen seeks out a damp, rotted stump or log to set up home. Damp, rotted wood is soft and easier to excavate. She finds a suitable site, enters, breaks off her wings, and commences the business of creating a colony: excavating a nest and laying eggs.

Because she has no workers to help her out with this first batch of young, the queen has to take care of them all by herself. She never leaves the nest to forage, so when her eggs hatch into hungry larvae, she feeds them from reserves in her own body. Because this food is rather Spartan, these larvae end up pupating into rather runty adults, which are known as “minors.” Once they are all grown up, these minors live to serve their queen: they forage for food, further excavate the nest, and raise the queen’s subsequent broods.

Adults born from later broods are more robust (and thus called “majors”), thanks to the foraging efforts of the workers (which are sterile females). When they are full adults, they join the workforce as additional workers. Slowly the colony builds up. By the time the colony is about four years old, there may be 400 individuals populating it.

It isn’t until the numbers swell to about 2000 (six to ten years) that the colony is ready to divide. At this point the queen lays eggs that hatch into winged females and winged males, both of which are called “reproductives”. These hormonally active adults are produced at the end of the summer and spend the winter at home with Mom and all their sisters. When the first really warm weather of the following spring arrives, they head out in search of mates (ah-ha!). After mating, the males die and the newly inseminated females, now queens in their own rights, seek out stumps or logs to call home.

So, it turns out that the (mostly) winged ants that I’ve been seeing on the roads are the reproductives. Knowing that once the colonies are large enough to expand and form satellite colonies, which are often in our homes, I don’t feel too guilty when I step on any individual that gets too close to my foot.

But when do they become problems in our houses? As mentioned above, the queens seek out soft damp wood because it is easier to excavate. If your house has damp conditions, you may be a target for carpenter ants. But even if your house is high and dry, well-ventilated, free of foundation plantings and woodpiles, you could still have carpenter ants, for satellite colonies are not as fussy as the queen in the parent colony. No, these industrious individuals are just as happy to take up residence in solid wood – the timbers of your home. Here they excavate extensive galleries that enable them easy access to other parts of your house, to food, to friends and family.

If you see piles of sawdust collecting about your house, you should be suspicious. You should also look for trails in your yard, for these ants are a lot like people, building highways for repeated use and maintaining them for ease of travel by keeping them free of debris and vegetation.

They also like sweets. While insects and other arthropods make up a large part of the carpenter ants’ diet, they also collect the sweet exudate, or honeydew, produced by aphids. And they seek out rotting fruits.

Eliminating carpenter ants from your house can be a real chore, for you have to eliminate the parent colony in order to have any real success. And if you have carpenter ants, you really should look into getting them under control, for they can seriously damage the structural integrity of your home.

Still, in their rightful place out in nature, carpenter ants serve a useful purpose by helping turn old, rotting trees into sawdust that eventually becomes part of the soil of the forest floor, creating a continuously self-renewing and balanced ecosystem. And it’s hardly the ants’ fault if we provide them with such lovely abodes in which they can take up residence. We just need to build better and learn how to make our homes less appealing to our small carpenter friends.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Commentary: Climate Change in the Champlain Basin

Over the past several hundred thousand years, global atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have remained relatively stable, averaging 280 parts per million (ppm) and varying between 180 and 300 ppm through several ice ages. But over the past 60 years, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmospheric has risen steadicly, at an accelerating rate from decade to decade, to the current level of 392 ppm.

Why should we care? There is a strong causal link (shown by ice core and other scientific studies) between atmospheric concentrations of “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide and global surface temperatures. Moreover, scientists who study the earth’s history have discovered periods in the Earth’s history, tens and hundreds of millions of years ago, when high concentrations of greenhouse gases apparently led to global warming and mass extinctions of the earth’s biota as much of the planet became uninhabitable. In the current period of rapidly rising atmospheric CO2, we are already seeing dramatic evidence of ecosystem change. Among many recent examples of climate-caused ecosystem change, two widely publicized ones include coral reefs bleaching and dying as the oceans warm and become more acidic, and dramatic losses of summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean as the poles warm.

Why should we care? Well, if you live in the Arctic, or if you live on a low-lying island in the ocean, or if you live in an area suffering from climate-caused drought, or if you live an an area where the forests are dead all around you (e.g., southern British Columbia and many areas in the Rocky Mountains), or if you fish for salmon in Alaskan rivers, you care. But for those of us living in temperate regions it is often hard to perceive, and thus to care about, the relatively slow incremental changes that are occurring due to rising levels of atmospheric CO2 and a changing climate. Scientists have only recently started to focus on impacts of climate change on a regional or local level in the temperate parts of the world.

A new study by Dr. Curt Stager and Mary Thill sheds light on climate impacts that have already occurred in the Lake Champlain Basin and what impacts are to be expected in the near future. Funded by The Nature Conservancy, the research was an effort to find out how climate change might affect the aquatic habitat in one relatively small region. Their research showed that average temperatures have risen 2°F in just the past 30 years and that winter ice cover is significantly less extensive than in the past. For example, in the 19th century the lake failed to freeze over only three times, while between 1970 and 2007 it failed to freeze over 18 times.

No one can precisely predict future climates, but a host of climate models do a demonstrably and increasingly good job of doing so. An on-line tool is available, Climate Wizard, which allows anyone to easily access leading climate change information from 16 leading climate models and visualize the impacts anywhere on the planet. Report authors Stager and Thill applied Climate Wizard to the Champlain basin to develop a deeper understanding of how climate change might impact the basin and what resource managers could do. The good news is that many of their recommendations are things that we are already doing or should be doing: reduce pollution inputs, monitor environmental conditions and vulnerable species, be flexible and adaptive and prepared for varying lake levels, and prevent alien species invasions. As the authors state, dealing proactively with potential climate change impacts in the basin will be less costly and more effective than trying to respond after the fact.

The same thought process applies at the global level where I began this commentary. Climate change is real. It is going to get much warmer within the next 50-100 years. There is strong scientific consensus (e.g., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports) that the primary cause of the dramatically rising atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases are human emissions. But this is good news, in a sense, as it means that unlike past episodes of climate change linked to volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts, we can control our future – if we take steps soon to reduce greenhouse gases before large areas of the planet become uninhabitable.

The steps we should be taking – reducing our dependence on foreign oil, eliminating the burning of coal until its combustion is clean and non-polluting, using renewable energy sources, eating locally grown food, driving hybrid and electric cars, and reducing our heating and electric bills – are things that we should do regardless, even if all the climate scientists are all wrong (inconceivable to me). These steps amount to taking out relatively cheap insurance to ensure that our grandchildren inherit a healthy planet – just in case the scientists are correct.

Curt Stager and Mary Thill’s full report is available here.

Graph: Lake Champlain ice dates, courtesy Curt Stager.