Posts Tagged ‘native plants’

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

‘Owner’s Manual’ for Landowners Available Free

When you buy a car or a refrigerator, you receive an owner’s manual. But when you buy a piece of land, you’re on your own. Until now, that is. A new owner’s manual is now available for New York landowners, and it’s free.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is working with the publishers of Northern Woodlands magazine to distribute this new publication that will provide New York landowners with essential information for taking care of their land and getting the most out of it. The guide, called The Place You Call Home: A Guide to Caring for Your Land in New York, is being distributed free of charge to people who own 10 or more acres in New York. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Adirondack Botany: A Bevy of Beechdrops

If you find yourself walking through the woods in late summer/early autumn, and you come across what looks like a slender, branched twig stuck in the ground, take a closer look. It could be a stick, or it just might be a really nifty plant: beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana).

Now, I know what you are thinking. That can’t possibly be a plant, or, if it is, it is dead. The lack of “verdure” (or, as described in Gray’s New Lessons and Manual of Botany (1868), “herbs destitute of green foliage”) is an immediate indication that you are looking at a very special plant, a plant that is wholly dependent on others for food.

Neltje Blanchan wrote in her 1917 book Wild Flowers Worth Knowing likened beechdrops to thieves:

Nearly related to the broom-rape is this less attractive pirate, a taller, brownish-purple plant, with a disagreeable odor, whose erect, branching stem without leaves is still furnished with brownish scales, the remains of what were once green leaves in virtuous ancestors, no doubt. But perhaps even these relics of honesty may one day disappear. Nature brands every sinner somehow; and the loss of green from a plant’s leaves may be taken as a certain indication that theft of another’s food stamps it with this outward and visible sign of guilt.

It’s beautiful writing, rather poetic, but sadly casts human traits onto nonhuman lives, in this case a poor hapless plant whose only fault is that it cannot make its own food.

Perhaps we should take another look at beechdrops. Neither thieves nor helpless, maybe we should consider them as opportunistic, perhaps even an advanced lifeform. Why waste energy making your own food when you can eat the food produced by others? HM…it sounds thoroughly American to me!

Over the eons it this plant has cast aside the need to have leaves (note the previously mentioned scales). Leaves exist to provide additional photosynthesizing surfaces. If one does not photosynthesize, one has no need for leaves.

Still, a plant has got to eat, and if it isn’t making its own food by mixing up sunlight with water and CO2, then it must find another food source. Beechdrops have a special structure on their roots called a haustorium. This structure grows out of the stem, root or hyphae of some parasitic plants, and on beechdrops it grows from the roots. The haustorium engulfs the root of the target plant (beechdrops are obligate parasites of beech trees) and taps the root for its life-giving sap.

Neltje mentioned beechdrops’ disagreeable odor. The plant is highly astringent, filled with compounds that make it beneficial medicinally, but not necessarily something one would want to add to a nosegay. Native Americans and settlers alike knew the benefits of beechdrops, which could help cure diarrhea and dysentery, heal wounds (antiseptic), work as a sedative, and even sooth aching eyes. At one point in time beechdrops were used as a folk medicine for cancer, although modern testing found it had no such virtue.

I came across a couple rather robust stands of beechdrops recently. What struck me as odd was that there wasn’t a beech tree to be seen! Because these plants are entirely dependent on beeches for survival, they shouldn’t have grown where I saw them. Admittedly, I was in a hurry, so I only did a quick scan of the forest; it is possible I overlooked the host plants. After all, it was a pocket of hardwoods, mostly sugar maples. Beech trees traditionally grow with birches and maples, so they should have been there. I’ll have to return and conduct a more thorough inventory.

If you find some beechdrops, you will want to have a seat and really look at them. They are quite beautiful, with small, striped, tubular flowers. Purple, red and brown are the colors they sport, and they wear them well.

You might think, as you gaze upon the plant, that the flowers on the lower end of the stem are just buds, waiting to open. In fact, they are fully fledged flowers in their own right, but they are cleistogamous. This means that they never open – there is no need for them to open because they are self-fertilized. The flowers closer to the top of the plant, the ones that form those delicate tubes, are chasmogamous and therefore require fertilization.

Why a plant would have both kinds of flowers? Some careful thought soon brings enlightenment. This is a plant that grows close to the ground (no more than a foot and a half tall, often less) in the woods. There is little wind near the ground (so much for wind-pollination), and there isn’t a whole lot of insect activity at this time of year in the woods. If a plant isn’t smelly and able to attract flies, it may not get a whole lot of action. So, some plants, like beechdrops, hedge their bets by producing a few flowers that require pollination, but also producing flowers that are completely self-contained, just in case. Based on the literature I’ve read, they’ve made the wise bet – it seems that the flowers that actually do get pollinated by visiting insects don’t produce fertile seeds, only the cleistogamous flowers are able to reproduce.

So, let’s not shun the parasitic plants. They have an otherworldly beauty about them and have merely tapped into a surplus foodsource not of their own making. It’s an entirely modern way of living, and since we as humans have embraced this lifestyle, I think it’s only right that we give a friendly nod to those plants that have done so as well, for they are, perhaps, kindred spirits.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Adirondack Wildflowers: Primrose Watching

Every summer when I was little, my sister and I would spend two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Gloversville, where we would visit with cousins, run through sprinklers, ride our bicycles past beautiful old Victorian houses, feed the birds and squirrels, slide down banisters, and generally have the kind of summer vacation that creates the best memories. One of the evening events that sticks out in my mind, besides making and eating banana splits, was The Watching of the Primrose.

My grandparents’ house (in which my great-grandparents also lived) was surrounded by gardens. All around the foundation, and along the edge of their property, flowers (and tomatoes) blossomed. Bleeding hearts, four o’clocks and foxgloves stand out in my memory, and there, next to the back corner, stood one tall stalk – an evening primrose. As the sun crept toward the horizon and the day came to a close, we’d go outside and stand around this stalk, which was nearly as tall as I, and watch.

Slowly, ever so slowly and then with gathering speed, pop! the bud would open and the yellow petals, all folded inside like a mini floral umbrella, would unfurl. It was a stop-motion film but there in real life. Today’s kids might not be held spellbound by this wonder of nature, but back in the ‘70s, it was still magic.

Do we wonder today why this flower would open when the sun goes down? Flowers exist to bring in pollinators, and in this part of the world most of those pollinators are insects or birds, and most of these pollinators are diurnal – they only come out during the day. What would be out at night to pollinate the primrose? Bats? If we lived in the Southwest, bats might be a consideration, but up here our bats are all insect-eaters. Birds? But the only nocturnal birds around here are owls, and they, being strict carnivores, shun plants except as perches and nest sites.

This leaves insects. Anyone who has been outside in the evening knows that there are some insects that love the night, like mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes, like owls, are seeking something warm-blooded for a meal (well, at least the females are). But if you are like me, and you sit up at night reading in bed with the glow of your lamp shining through the open windows, your reading is likely disturbed by the soft thuds of insects bouncing into the window screens as they attempt to reach that light. Moths.

Indeed, it is a moth that is responsible for the reproductive success of the evening primrose. In fact, there are many plants that depend on moths for night-time pollination, and they all have something in common: pale petals. Flowers with white or yellow petals show up pretty well at night, especially when the moon comes out. The creative gardener might plant a bed with naught but night-blooming flowers – what a delight to visit when sleep is held at bay by a restless mind.

The moth that visits the evening primrose is Schinia florida, the evening primrose moth. This moth has pink and white wings, and a furry white body. The reason for this pink coloration is not readily apparent. During the day the moth snoozes within the now-closed primrose flower. As the flower ages (each flower “lives” only a short time), its petals turn from yellow to pink, creating the perfect hideout for its pollinator.

I don’t know that I’ve never seen this moth, but I will certainly keep my eyes open for it now. I know where there are a few evening primroses, and it’s been many years since I’ve enjoyed their show. I think I will take some time over the next week or two to seek them out. Not only will I marvel as they open to greet the night, but I will perhaps peek inside the dying blooms during the day to see if anyone is sleeping inside.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wildflowers: Adirondack Lobelia Varieties

Late summer is lobelia season, and the Adirondacks are a great place to find these beautiful flowers, the most stunning of which is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Most lobelias, however, are not red; they are various shades of blue. Here in New York we have seven species of lobelia (including cardinal flower), and today I want to introduce you to Lobelia inflata, commonly known as Indian tobacco.

I encountered Indian tobacco for the first time this summer. I was busy photographing some ladies tresses when I saw this lovely pale blue flower blooming nearby. I took a couple photos to identify later, and promptly returned to the orchids. When I looked at the photos the next day, I knew I had a lobelia, but was unsure which kind. As soon as I knew which species it was, I decided I needed to learn more. After all, a plant with the name “Indian tobacco” must surely have an interesting history. Into herbals and books on ethnobotany I delved.

As it turns out, Indian tobacco has a rather long and well-documented history of medicinal uses among many of our native peoples. The most common uses involved remedies for a variety of respiratory ailments, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and coughs. I was surprised to learn that the plant was smoked to treat asthma. Coltsfoot is another plant that has traditionally been smoked for asthma and other bronchial disturbances. Is it just me, or does this seem counterintuitive? I mean, if one is having difficulty breathing, does it make sense to inhale smoke for a treatment? This is another example of “things that make you say ‘hm’.”

The plant was probably named “tobacco” because when broken it produces a scent similar to tobacco, and apparently it tastes like tobacco, too. Not having ever used tobacco, or sampled this lobelia, I can neither confirm nor deny these statements. However, the active chemical ingredient in the plant is lobeline, which has similar effects on the body as nicotine. In fact, some folks believed Indian tobacco could be used to help people quit smoking. Several products containing lobeline used to be available for just this purpose, but in 1993 the FDA determined that they were ineffective (the products, not the FDA) and prohibited their sale.

More recent studies, however, suggest that lobeline might be helpful in the treatment of persons with drug addictions. Medicinally, this is a plant to watch.

Many lobelias grow in damp, if not down right wet, conditions, but not Indian tobacco. This species prefers dry sites and is often found growing along roadsides. It’s actually a fairly common plant, most likely overlooked because its small flowers (one-quarter inch long) are not all that showy at a distance. Up close, however, they are quite attractive, with three petals pointing downward, and two sticking up, kind of like little blue ears above a wide blue beard.

When the seedpods develop, the reason for the species name inflata becomes apparent: they look like inflated bladders. In fact, for novice botanists this might be one of the best identifying traits to look for when trying to ID this plant.

As the summer draws out and the cicadas sing, it’s time to seek out the lobelias. Walk along roadsides, walk along lake shores. Look for pale blue or bright red flowers, with three petals hanging downward, and two pointing up. They are funny-looking flowers, but delightful to find.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Purple Loosestrife and the Adirondacks

I was recently on a road trip to and from the beautiful state of Maine. The trip took me across Lake Champlain, through the agricultural and ski lands of Vermont, zipping down the forest-lined highways of New Hampshire, and then into Maine itself, where I briefly visited the coast before heading upstate to Augusta. As beautiful as each of these states is, there was one thing they all had in common: purple loosestrife.

I know, you are thinking “we’ve got purple loosestrife here in New York, too – even in the Adirondacks,” and you would be correct in this thought. But let me tell you – the Adirondacks have nothing compared to these other states, where this elegant purple flower is thick as thieves in every body of water I passed – be it fresh or salt. I was bowled over by how far its reach had stretched, and how established it had become. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bladderworts: Pretty, But Deadly Adirondack Natives

What child hasn’t read about carnivorous plants? Usually by the time we are in 4th or 5th grade, someone we know has discovered the Venus Fly Trap, that classic carnivore of the floral world. But one needn’t travel to the tropics, or even The South, to discover the joy of plant carnivory. Right here in the Adirondacks we have pitcher plants and sundews, two carnivores that are popular in their own right. But we also have bladderworts, smaller and less unusual (at least on the surface – they look like snapdragons), but no less deadly. These are plants worthy of our attention.

New York is home to fourteen species of bladderworts, four of which are threatened and one that is endangered. Some species float in the water, while others are “rooted” in the soil at the water’s edge (bladderworts don’t technically have roots). Most sport bright yellow flowers that rival birdsfoot trefoil for brilliance, but two come in shades of pale purple, making them a delightful find.

Bladderwort – the name is bound to make one chuckle. It sounds funny and brings some funny images to mind. “Wort” comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, and it simply means “plant.” The “bladder” part of the name does not refer to an excretory system, however. If one pulls up a bladderwort, one will see all sorts of little pouches, or bladders, clinging to the plant. These bladders are the dangerous part of the plant.

Bladderworts come in two basic varieties up here: free-floating aquatics and terrestrial. Despite the name, terrestrial species (which make up about 80% of the world’s bladderwort species) are actually not growing high and dry – they are found in saturated, water-logged soils. This is because bladderworts must have water in order to get their food.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. The bladders, which look kind of like little helmets, are more or less flat when they are set. When they are set, they are in a state of negative osmotic pressure. Across the opening to the outside world, each bladder has what is essentially a lid. Attached to the lid are the trigger hairs. When a small creature brushes by the trigger, a lever-like action takes place. Where the hair attaches to the bladder, it levers an opening in the seal around the lid. Once this seal is broken, the vacuum is released, the lid flies open, and the surrounding water (and its contents) are sucked into the bladder. When the bladder is full, the lid closes and calmness is restored…at least in the water. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second.

Meanwhile, within the bladder, dire things are happening. Digestive enzymes and bacteria get to work on the prey. Prey items vary in size and species depending on the species of bladderwort involved. The free-floating bladderworts have larger bladders and can take on larger prey, sometimes capturing fish fry, mosquito larvae and even small tadpoles. More likely, however, they are eating things like water fleas and nematodes. The terrestrial species, with their smaller bladders, are consuming things like protozoans and rotifers, microscopic creatures swimming through the watery soil.

The rate of digestion depends on the size of the prey. Some food can be digested quickly, in a matter of minutes, while other items take hours, or even days, to be consumed. When the food had been completely reduced to soup, special cells extract the slurry, transporting it into the stem of the plant, once more creating a vacuum in the bladder. The trap is now reset and ready for its next victim.

While reading up on the digestive habits of these plants, I found myself grateful that they are so small. Can you imagine a bladderwort large enough to engulf a human? No body of water would be safe for swimmers! This could be the stuff of horror movies (giant bladderworts grow near nuclear reactors…swimmers and watercraft are warned to stay out of the water…)!

Science fiction aside, these are some pretty interesting, and highly sophisticated, plants. Bladderworts can be found in many of the Adirondack’s lakes, ponds, bogs, and even along streams and rivers. While they tend to prefer acidic water, some do very well in more alkaline conditions. If you are paddling along and see what look like bright yellow snapdragons sticking above the water’s surface, you have probably found a free-floating species. Reach in and lift out the leafy mass to see the bladders, but be sure to return it to its watery home when you are done.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History

The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.

When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say.

Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.

Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.

A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.

But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.

The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.

Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.

Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.

Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.

This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Remembering Ketch: Educator and Conservationist

Dr. Edwin H. Ketchledge died peacefully yesterday. He was 85.

“Ketch,” to all who knew him, was a botanist, teacher and founder of the Summit Steward program, a 20-year collaborative effort to educate hikers and protect vulnerable alpine plants that cling to the Adirondacks’ highest summits.

He was veteran of the 10th Mountain Division’s Italy campaign. Surviving that experience inspired Ketch to live a meaningful life. He dedicated himself to Adirondack conservation, botany and teaching.

Dr. Ketchledge was a distinguished teaching professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

He authored one of the essential Adirondack field guides, Forests & Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, first published by Adirondack Mountain Club in 1967. He understood the Adirondack landscape in both paleo and poetic terms.

“The forests we see around us now are unique; they have no analogs in the past. Interglacial conditions have been here for only 40 tree generations of time,” he wrote. “The outwardly stable forests we see in our human lifetime are more correctly understood as dynamic populations of competing species, adjusting as necessary over centuries of time to variations in the proverbial balance of nature: that so-called ‘balance’ is more truthfully an episodic teeter-totter!”

He worked in the High Peaks for more than 40 years, surveying, mapping and restoring alpine meadows. His belief that people would take responsibility for protecting the meadows if they were informed about them has been validated by the success of the Summit Steward program, which teaches hikers on-site about the mountaintop ecosystem.

Arrangements are incomplete with the Garner Funeral Home in Potsdam. Gifts in his memory may be made to the Summit Steward program, in care of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and to SUNY-ESF.

Photograph of Ketch on Whiteface Mountain, courtesy of Kathy Regan


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 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).


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.


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.


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 12, 2010

Pin Cherry: An Overlooked Adirondack Native

A little bit of sunshine, a little bit of rain, and suddenly the trees are in bloom. It starts off slowly, with our friend the shadbush, but before you know it, white blossoms are springing forth from trees and shrubs all around us. In just a short amount of time, the novelty of delicate white flowers can become mundane, as one flowering shrub starts to look like the next. Add to this some similarity in names, and it is not surprising that many of our native shrubs are unknown or misidentified. In an attempt to shed some light on this confusing subject, today I give you the pin cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica).

The pin cherry is a small tree, or a large shrub, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Further south, in the Great Smokey Mountains, it can reach heights of 30 to 40 feet and a diameter of 20 inches. Around here, however, I’ve only seen it as a fairly small tree – a giant if it reaches ten feet. This could be because the deer browse it heavily in winter, preventing it from gaining much height. What it lacks in stature, however, it seems to make up for with stems – instead of a single trunk rising serenely above the surrounding vegetation, it grows into rather dense copses, sometimes mixed in with its relatives the choke cherries (P. virginiana), black cherries (P. serotina), and the look-alike choke berries (Aronia sp.). And when they all come into flower, they can be difficult for the novice to tell apart, especially at a distance.

Pin cherry, also called fire cherry, bird cherry, wild cherry and red cherry, has long, narrow, dark green leaves that are very finely toothed along the edge. The delicate white flowers grow in clusters from single points along the branches, much like the needles on a white pine or larch. Each flower blossoms at the end of a long stem. When the flowers become fruits, they resemble large-headed pins, like the hat pins used by women long years ago. Today we might liken them to corsage pins.

The other common names are equally easy to interpret. The birds (and other wildlife) happily feed on the wild red fruits in fall. When a disturbance, like fire, moves through the forest, this pioneer species is one of the first to produce seedlings in the newly opened spaces. This is because the seeds can remain viable in the soil upwards of a hundred years! Just add sunshine and voila!

Insects also delight in this unassuming shrub. Spring brings bees and flies galore to sup at the flowers, making the whole plant buzz with life. Come summer, look for white trails on the leaves – these are the mines made by the larvae of a small moth known only by its scientific name: Bucculatrix copeuta. This moth is a true specialist, for its larvae feed on nothing but pin cherry leaves.

While a boon to wildlife wherever it grows, and a delight to the eye in the spring with its froth of flowers and in the fall with its glowing-coal-red leaves, to the logger pin cherry is naught but a weedy thing, a tree with no timber value. Reading through Donald Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees one can tell that this is a species for which the author has little regard, which is surprising considering the elegant prose and great praise he provides across most of the pages of this book.

Still, the fruits are edible by people as well as wildlife. I found a couple recipes online for pin cherry jelly and pudding. The important thing to remember is that the seeds/pits (as well as the leaves and bark) do contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic, so be sure you only eat the flesh of the fruit.

Last spring I planted a row of native shrubs/trees along the border of my property. Two of these plants were pin cherries. While each of the thirteen new shrubs was barely more than a stick with roots when placed in its new home, the pin cherries burst forth with blossoms this year. What a pleasant surprise when one isn’t expecting anything more productive than leaves for the next two or three years. I’m sure the birds will also appreciate the earlier-than-expected fruits when fall returns in a few months’ time.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Fly Honeysuckle: A Sweet Adirondack Native

In today’s world, the word “honeysuckle” is bound to get mixed reactions. To some people, it brings back memories of childhood, when they would gather the flowers and suck out the sweet nectar. To others, it conjures up olfactory reminiscences of the air filled with a sweet, sweet scent. In these days of invasive species of awareness, a good number of us think of honeysuckle as an evil, aggressive invader, taking over yards, fields, wetlands and forests. And all of these opinions would be correct, for there are about 180 species of honeysuckle in the genus Lonicera worldwide (all within the northern hemisphere), and each has its rightful place on the planet and in our memories.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are lucky to have several species of native honeysuckle: American fly (Lonicera canadensis), wild/glaucous/smooth-leaved/limber/mountain (L. dioica), hairy (L. hirsuta), swamp fly (L. oblongifolia), trumpet/coral (L. sempervirens), and waterberry/mountain fly/northern fly (L. villosa). None are considered rare or of special concern, and yet how many of us have, knowingly, encountered them?

Personally, I can only claim having come face-to-face with one of these shrubs, and that is the American fly honeysuckle. Usually blooming in the central Adirondacks in May, this year it began putting forth its twin, pale trumpets in mid-April. These delicate yellow flowers, sometimes tending towards a greenish-yellow, dangle almost completely hidden beneath the plant’s leaves. As you can see in the photo, I lifted the leaves for a better view. Later in the summer, these flowers are replaced with bright red fruits, paired, looking kind of like miniature glossy red mustaches.

Like all good honeysuckles in the family Caprifoliaceae, the American fly sports opposite branching. The leaves, growing in pairs on opposites sides of the branch, are oval-shaped, and if you look very closely at the edge of a leaf (you need a good handlens), you will see a fringe of hairs. Do these help protect the plant in times of cold weather? I have my doubts, since they are not terribly thick and woolly, and they only occur on the margin of the leaf. Still, they must have some significance, even if the world of science hasn’t discovered it yet.

Last night I looked through all my plant books (and that’s a good number, with volumes dating from the late 1800s right up to modern times) for some nifty information about American fly honeysuckle, but found nothing. Eventually I decided I’d settle for any lore about any of the honeysuckles. The world of botanical literature has let me down. The most interesting thing I could find was that the genus (Lonicera) is named after a 16th-century German botanist: Adam Lonicer (1528-1586). Reading up further on this fellow, I found that he was rather quite accomplished. He received his Master’s degree by the time he was sixteen-years-old. He went on to become a medical doctor, a mathematics professor, and quite the herbalist. Apparently his passion was in plants. His is most noted for his revision of Eucharius Rosslin’s herbal (book) in 1557. He called his herbal the Kräuterbuch.

Many of the Eastern Woodland natives knew that honeysuckles had some medicinal properties, too, for Native American Ethnobotany lists several of our native species, American fly among them. While treatment for various venereal diseases was a biggie in the lists, it seems that an infusion of the bark was equally important for calming children who spent the night crying – it is a sedative.

American fly honeysuckle is listed as an important nectaring plant for hummingbirds. Hm. Looking at the state of the flowers in the woods here, I’m thinking those hummers had better show up pretty soon if they want to take advantage of this food source, for many of the blossoms are looking rather past their prime. This could be a side effect of the recent snow, however, for I also saw a number of flower buds. Even so, hummingbirds usually don’t arrive in Newcomb until almost the second week of May. It seems we have another example of seasonal shifts and their effect(s) on wildlife.

If you should decide that you want to plant honeysuckle around your property, please take advantage of our native species. Some can be quite lovely, with flowers of yellow, orange and even red. Believe it or not, the red trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle, which is a vine, is native. So go ahead and put this in your gardens – the hummingbirds will love you for it. And forget the Japanese and tartarian honeysuckles. While beautiful, sweet, and full of bees when their blossoms open, they are “vigorous growers,” a gardening euphemism for aggressive invaders. Instead, support your local wildlife by supporting your local native plants.