On Sunday some friends and I decided to take our kayaks out for the first time this season. The water in Wilson Pond in Swanzey was warm enough for a dip, in case a mishap should happen and one of us got wet. We started our journey by paddling past the island in the pond.
It was a beautiful day and the sun felt hot as we paddled, but luckily there was a stiff breeze that cooled us. Though welcome, it also made the water quite choppy and would blow your kayak across the water as if it were a sailboat if you stopped paddling.
Secluded coves and channels meant we could find some shade and get away from the wind for a while. The water in some of these channels is very shallow; I’m not sure you’d even get your knees wet if you walked them. Last year there were a lot of ducks here but on this day we didn’t see a single one.
Beavers had cut down many of the white birch trees along the shore but they left them behind and didn’t even eat the new twigs on their crowns, which seems odd behavior for a beaver. Some trees were hard to paddle around.
I’ve never seen any white water lilies in this pond but yellow pond lilies (Nuphar lutea) like to grow in coves where the water is relatively shallow and calm.
The seeds of the yellow pond lily plant were a very valuable food source to Native Americans, who ground them into flour. They also popped them much like popcorn, but unless the seeds are processed correctly they can be very bitter and foul tasting. The plant was also medicinally valuable to many native tribes.
Native pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) blossomed in small colonies just off shore. If you see pickerel weed you can expect the water it grows in to be relatively shallow and placid. These examples were only about two feet high but I recently saw others that were as tall as a great blue heron. I didn’t know that they grew so tall.
Pickerelweed’s common name comes from the pickerel fish because they were once thought to breed only under its leaves. Each of the small, tubular flowers on the spikey flower heads will produce a fruit with a single seed. Once the flowers are pollinated and seeds have formed the flower stalk will bend over and drop the seeds into the water, where they will have to go through at least two months of cold weather before being able to germinate. Ducks and muskrats love the seeds and deer, geese and muskrats eat the leaves. Though humans can eat the seeds and new spring shoots of this plant there is no record that I can find of Native Americans using it for food.
Maleberrry (Lyonia ligustrina) shrubs look much like a blueberry, even down to their flowers, but these flowers are much smaller than those of blueberry. I’d guess barely half the size of a blueberry blossom. The two shrubs often grow side by side and look so much alike that sometimes the only way to tell them apart is by the maleberry’s woody brown, 5 part seed capsule. These seed capsules stay on the shrub in some form or another year round and are helpful for identification, especially in spring when the two shrubs look nearly identical.
I’ve included this photo of the maleberry’s seed capsules that I took earlier so you could see what they look like. They are very hard and woody and appear near the branch ends.
Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) plants grow in great bunches along the shoreline. These small blue-violet flowers get their common name from the way that the calyx at the base of the flowers look a bit like a medieval helmet, called a skull cap, and how the plant was once thought to cure rabies because of its anti-spasmodic properties. Though it doesn’t cure rabies there is powerful medicine in this little plant so it should never be eaten. When Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose.
Mad-Dog Skullcap has the smallest flowers among the various skullcaps and they always grow in pairs in the leaf axils. Another skullcap, marsh skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata,) looks very similar and the two are difficult to tell apart. Both grow in full sun on grassy hummocks at the water’s edge, but the blossoms of mad dog skullcap are slightly smaller than those of marsh skullcap.
Swamp roses (Rosa palustris) bloomed in great numbers on the hummocks along the shoreline but I had trouble getting close to them. The 2 inch flowers are very fragrant and though the plant prefers wet to moist soil it will also grow in dry ground. It would be an excellent choice for a home pond or near a stream.
Bur reed is another plant found growing just off shore but I’ve also found it growing in wet, swampy places at the edge of forests. Bur reeds can be a challenge to identify even for botanists, but I think the one pictured is American bur reed (Sparganium americanum.) There are two types of flowers on this plant. The smaller and fuzzier staminate male flowers grow at the top of the stem and the larger pistillate female flowers lower down.
The female flowers of bur reed are less than a half inch across. After pollination the male flowers fall off and the female flowers become a bur-like cluster of beaked fruits that ducks and other waterfowl eat. The flowers of bur reed always remind me of those of buttonbush.
Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum) isn’t common in this area and doesn’t grow in this pond, but I’ve included it because it’s an unusual aquatic that isn’t often seen. In fact, I know of only two ponds that it grows in. The plants grow just offshore in the mud and send up a slender stalk that is topped by a quarter inch diameter flower head made up of minuscule white, cottony flowers.
Eriocaulon, the first part of pipewort’s scientific name, comes from the Greek erion, meaning wool, and kaulos, meaning plant stem. The second part of the scientific name, aquaticus, is Latin for a plant that grows in water, so what you are left with is a wool-topped stem growing in water, and that’s exactly what pipewort is. I’ve found that its flowers are close to impossible to get a good photo of.
When I found a new spot for pipewort plants this year I also found a new plant that I’d never seen; water lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna.) I can’t speak for its rarity, but I’ve never seen it in any pond I’ve visited. It’s said to be a more northern species, so that could be why. I’ve read that the plant has the unusual ability of removing carbon dioxide from the rooting zone rather than from the atmosphere. It is said to be an indicator of infertile and relatively pristine shoreline wetlands.
The small, pale blue or sometimes white flowers are less than a half inch long and not very showy. They have 5 sepals and the base of the 5 petals is fused into a tube. The 2 shorter upper petals fold up. I’ve read that the flowers can bloom and set seed even under water. The seed pods are said to contain numerous seeds which are most likely eaten by waterfowl.
Cattails (Typha latifolia) formed an impenetrable wall and soared overhead in some places along the shoreline. They must have been 8 feet tall or more.
As the old saying goes all good things must come to an end and before we knew it, it was time to turn for home. I’ve found that an hour or so in a kayak is about all my back can take, but what a fun filled hour it can be. It’s an excellent way to get close to aquatic plants.
We are but a speck in the universe
Oh, but what a lucky speck to be.
Thanks for coming by.