Saturday, July 3, 2010

Snowberry Clearwing: The Hummingbird Moth

As the flowers in our gardens burst into their summer display, the critters that crave nectar descend upon them, each intent on sipping its share. From birds to bees, they are all there, and if you aren’t careful, you can mistake one for another. Take for example, the clearwing moths, which for us are most likely the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) or the snowberry clearwing (H. diffinis).

These noisy insects look like a cross between a hummingbird and a bumblebee. Like a hummer, they hover before each flower (bumble bees land) as they uncurl their long proboscises (think tongues) to probes the flower’s nectaries for food. Like a bumble bee, these moths are furry: the snowberry clearwing has black and yellow bands, while the hummingbird clearwing tends more towards dark red and black. All three animals (bird, bee, and moth) have wings that hum and buzz while the animals are in flight. It’s enough to give a gardener pause.

I found the snowberry clearwing pictured above this spring as it supped at the tubular flowers of a native honeysuckle. Honeysuckles are one of the favored plants of both the adults and the larvae. Other plants where you might find the adults hovering include orange hawkweed, thistles, and lilacs. I often see them flitting in and out of my patches of bee balm, along with the hummingbirds.

In the spring adult clearwings emerge from the ground where they have spent the winter sleeping snugly in silken cocoons spun the previous fall beneath the leaf litter. Upon emergence, the “fresh” moths have solidly-colored wings: nearly black in appearance. Their first flight, however, with wings flapping to beat the band, causes most of the scales to fall off, especially near the center of each wing. The end result is wings that are nearly scale-less and therefore look clear.

The first flights begin, and soon the female is sending out a pheromone from a gland located near the tip of her abdomen to signal to any available male that she is ready to mate. Once the deed is accomplished, she lays her newly fertilized pale green eggs singly beneath the leaves of a host plant.

Host plants are those that are favored food items of caterpillars. In the case of the snowberry clearwing, several plants will do. Many are in the honeysuckle family, including snowberry (hence the name), but others include cherry, plum, dogbane and the viburnums.

Summer rolls along and the eggs hatch. Miniscule green caterpillars begin to eat, growing a little more each day. They go through five instars, or growth spurts. As it grows, the larva’s patterns begin to emerge: pale green color with black spots along the sides. These spots are called spiracular circles, for they form around the spiracles, or breathing holes (insects do not have lungs and noses like us for breathing – they breathe through holes in their sides). Additionally, the caterpillar sports a spike, or horn, on its rear end. When it reaches its final instar, this spike is blue-black over most of its length, with white and yellow at its base. Some larvae, however, opt for a more subtle coloration and are various shades of brown. Still, the spiked tail and spiracular circles are good clues for ID.

When the final instar is reached, and the larva has eaten its fill, it drops to the ground, crawls under some leaves and spins a silken cocoon in which it will spend the winter. If nothing squashes or eats it, come spring a new adult will emerge and the cycle will begin again.

Another of the common names for these insects is sphinx moth. This name came about from the habit the caterpillars have of rearing up (and looking sphinx-like) when threatened.

Clearwing moths are insects that almost anyone with a flower garden should encounter, for not only are they fairly common, but they are denizens of open areas, like streamsides, fields, and the ‘burbs. Therefore, it should be fairly easy to find one or more. Here’s my suggestion: the next sunny day, grab a lawn chair (or your Adirondack chair) and kick back in front of your flowers. Have a cool drink handy, and a wide-brimmed hat. Keep your eyes open – you just never know what will fly by.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Thoughts on Flies and Death

Last night at chorus practice a fellow tenor and I got to discussing flies and death. The conversation started off normally enough, with her asking me how the flies were in Newcomb. I allowed as how the blackflies were still around, but not terribly problematic, the mosquitoes were quite numerous and taking over my house, and the deerflies were holding their own. Mostly, however, I told her of how the large black “house” flies were filling up my kitchen window and buzzing around the house until all hours of the night.

From here the conversation turned to her childhood. She told me of how her father had deer hanging in the cellar at all times of the year so the family could eat. Sometimes in summer the meat would start to get rather ripe. And then the flies arrived: they would line the doors, crawl on the tables. For a small child, they could be quite terrifying. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cedar Waxwings: Silk-Tailed Birds of the Cedars

Every day for the last three weeks or so, the air has been filled with the thin, high pitched calls of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). Highly social birds, they flock together year round as they forage for food in their favorite haunts. Lately these haunts have been the yards and lawns around town, where daily I see their heads popping up from the grassy carpets, peering at me with their beady eyes while they assess whether my presence is threatening or not.

From the first time I saw a cedar waxwing, I fell in love with it. Its feathers are so sleek that they blend together to form a whole, making the bird look like something made of silk or satin. In fact, the name Bombycilla was coined in an attempt to reflect this: silk-tailed. Add to the fine-textured caramel-colored body a jaunty crest, a black mask, a yellow stripe on the tail and wings tipped with “red sealing wax”, and you have one dapper bird.

I recently found a deceased waxwing on the side of the road and had the chance to examine it in great detail. Those bits of red on the wings really do look like someone dripped sealing wax on the ends of the feathers. In truth, however, each red “thing” is merely a flattened extension of the feather’s shaft. It is quite stiff and does feel waxy.

People have speculated for many years the reason(s) for these decorations, and in the 1980s a theory was put forth that the birds use them to assess each other for potential mates. Apparently the number of “droplets” reflects the age of the bird: more droplets means greater age. It seems that the birds select mates who share the same number of droplets as they sport, thus mating with individuals that are the same age. It seems as good a theory as any.

Several years ago, I had a friend who had a parakeet. She had to be sure to provide the bird with red or orange foods to keep its color optimum, otherwise it faded to a pale yellow. Likewise, flamingoes that don’t eat enough shrimp start to loose their pink coloration. The same seems to hold true with the waxwings. Back in the 1960s birds started to show up in the northeast with orange-colored wax droplets instead of red, and orange tips on their tails instead of yellow. It turns out that this color change coincided with the introduction of non-native honeysuckles. The red wax droplets are colored by the presence of certain carotenoid pigments found in the birds’ regular food. The birds eating the foreign fruits consumed different carotneoids and ended up with differently colored feather tips.

Cedar waxwings are one of the most serious fruit-eating birds we have. Most of the year they dine on fruits: cherries, serviceberries, winterberries, dogwood berries, hawthorns, mountain ash, et al (note that all these fruits are red). These small fruits are inhaled whole and digested with such rapidity that the seeds pass right through the birds’ digestive tracts. When fruits are ripe, the flocks sweep in, take a seat on a convenient branch and start gulping them down, although sometimes they will hover mid-air and pluck the fruits. A tree or shrub can be stripped clean in a day or two, and then the flock moves on.

A classic waxwing behavior, and one every bird photographer has captured, is the passing of a fruit from bird to bird. Sometimes this is done between members of the flock, until one bird decides to eat it. Other times it is done as part of a courtship ritual, where the male presents the female with a fruit. She in turn takes it and hops away, contemplating the gift. If she is impressed, she hops back and gives the fruit back to him. This little ritual repeats until the female decides to eat the fruit (or not). Apparently fruit consumption is equivalent to accepting an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, nest building begins.

By the time late spring and early summer roll around, however, there are few, if any fruits, left for the birds to eat. When this happens, these birds don’t starve and fade away, they have a back up plan. They change their diet to insects. And just as they eat fruit like there is no tomorrow, so, too, do they gorge on insects. This can be quite the boon when insect pests are around, for a flock can go through an insect population like wildfire through a drought-stricken forest. I’d be willing to bet that this is what all those waxwings on the lawns have been doing for the last few weeks: hunting down insects to fill their bottomless bellies. Sadly, this single-minded behavior can get them in trouble, for flocks foraging along roadsides can get run down by passing cars and trucks, like the waxwing I found yesterday.

If you find yourself walking along a forest edge, or a grassy field near a woodlot, keep your eyes and ears open for waxwings. You are bound to hear them, and when you do, it is only a matter of glancing around before you find the source of their distinctive sound.

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.


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.