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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot Rail Trails’

Last Sunday I decided that a walk along the Ashuelot River in Keene was in order because this stretch of river is one of only two places I know of where gentians grow, and I wanted to see how they were coming along. They should bloom in a little over a month.

People have been walking along this path since long before I came along and it’s still a favorite of bike riders, dog walkers, joggers and nature lovers. On a good day you might see ducks, geese, blue heron, beavers, muskrats, squirrels, chipmunks and more birds than you can count here, as well as a wide variety of wildflowers and fungi. There have also been quite a few recent reports of a black bear in the area, but I was hoping that it was taking this day off.

You might even see something you’ve never seen before; that was my experience with this Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis.) This is the first time it has appeared on this blog because this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. I was surprised by how small it was. I thought it would be as big as a tradescantia blossom but it was only half that size. It is an introduced plant from China and Japan but it could hardly be called invasive; it seems to be quite rare here. I love that shade of blue.

Another introduced plant that can be called very invasive is purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and I was sorry but not surprised to see it here. If left unchecked it might very well be the only plant on these river banks a few years from now. It eventually chokes out almost every native plant it contacts.

Native Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) grew along the river bank as well, and I hope it doesn’t lose the battle to purple loosestrife. I like seeing its dusty rose flower heads at this time of year.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) also grew on the river bank but I couldn’t get near them because they were growing in the water. I was surprised because every other time I’ve seen this native shrub it was growing up high on the river bank well away from the water. The waterfowl will appreciate it being so close because they love the seeds.

This was one of a few strange things I saw on this day. I don’t know what it was all about but what struck me as even stranger than its being here in the first place was that hundreds of people have walked by it and nobody has touched it. I must have seen at least ten children walking or bike riding with their parents and I don’t know why they left it alone. They must be very well behaved. When my own son and daughter were little this would have been like a magnet to them.

This was another strange thing I saw. It was nailed to a pine tree and I don’t have any idea why.  I do know for sure that Europeans weren’t nailing metal tags to trees in New Hampshire in 1697 though.

Yet another strange thing I saw was a turtle that appeared to be trying to fly. It kept putting its hind legs up in the air and wiggling its toes in the breeze. I don’t know what it was trying to do but it seemed very happy to be doing it. Maybe it was just celebrating such a beautiful day.

A young robin flew into a nearby bush and watched the turtle trying to fly. It didn’t seem real impressed, but what bird would be?

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) grew near the turtle’s log. At a glance common boneset looks like white Joe Pye weed. That’s because the two plants are closely related. In fact they can often be found growing side by side, but boneset blossoms a little later than Joe Pye weed here. I find it on river, pond and stream banks; almost always near water. The “perfoliatum” part of boneset’s scientific name means “through the leaf,” and that’s what boneset leaves look like; as if they had been perforated by the stem. The leaves joining around the stem as they do looked like bones knitting together as they healed to ancient herbalists, and that’s how the plant got its common name.

I’ve never seen pink lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium acaule) blooming along this stretch of the Ashuelot but the plants are here. I must not have walked this trail at the right time but I’ll be here next spring when they bloom.

There are many side trails off the main trail and every time I come out here I tell myself that I’m going to explore them one day but, even though I’ve been coming here since I was a boy, so far that day hasn’t come.

A crust fungus had nearly engulfed this entire tree stump. I think it was the netted crust fungus (Byssomerulius corium,) but I’ve never seen it get so big. It looked as if it was oozing right out of the stump.

White rattlesnake root (Prenanthes alba) is sometimes called white lettuce but it isn’t a lettuce, though they are in the same aster family that the lettuces are in. It’s probably thought to be another lettuce because it blooms at the same time and in the same locations as the wild lettuces do, but instead of the daisy like petals of lettuce flowers these look more bell shaped and lily like. The Native American Choctaw tribe used the tops of the plant in tea that they used to relieve pain. It is said that the common name comes from the way that some Native American tribes used the plant to treat snakebite.

Native long leaved pondweed (Potamogeton nodosus) also grew in the calm shallows. It likes to root in the mud and grow in full sun in warm standing water up to 4 feet deep. Many types of waterfowl including ducks and swans eat the seeds and leaves of this plant and muskrats like the stems. Many species of turtle eat the leaves, so it seems to be a plant that feeds just about every critter on the river. A man and woman came along when I was taking this photo and the woman came over to see what I thought was so interesting “Yuck, that’s disgusting!” she said. Since I see nothing disgusting about it her reaction to this important pond weed baffled me. Maybe she just doesn’t get out much.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is doing well this year; this plant was loaded with berries. They’ll ripen to a chalky white from the green seen here. I get into it every year and this year was no exception. One of my fingers has had a blister on it for about a week and is itching as I type this. Luckily it stays put on me and doesn’t spread, but I’ve known people who were hospitalized by it.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) isn’t being very blue this year. I keep hoping to find a plant with deep blue flowers but so far all I’ve seen are ice blue examples. There are hundreds of plants along this stretch of river and I know of many more that grow along a stream and some near a pond, so the plant must like to be near water, possibly due to the increased humidity.

Though I usually look for narrow leaf gentians (Gentiana linearis) near mid-August the bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) along the Ashuelot were nowhere near blooming. Last year I found them blooming in mid-September, so I’ll wait awhile and come back. The plants looked good and healthy with plenty of buds and hadn’t been eaten by bug or beast, so they should bloom well.

I was born not far from this river and I first put my toes into it just about 50 years ago. I’ve been near it pretty much ever since but even after all this time I still see many things along its banks that I’ve never seen, and I guess that’s why I keep coming back. I hope there is a river in your life as well.

If you have a river, then you should share it with everyone. ~Chen Guangbiao

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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 1. Rail Trail

Last weekend really felt like spring with warm sunshine and warm southwesterly breezes blowing, so I decided to walk an old rail trail that runs right behind the house I grew up in. When I was a boy there were railroad tracks here and I spent many hours walking along them. Now snowmobiles get the most use out of the area. I appreciate them packing the snow down so you don’t need snowshoes, but it means that there is far less solitude here than there used to be.

 2. Wild Cucumber

There are many things along this old rail bed that take me back to my childhood, including the wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) that we all used to throw at each other. This is one of the plants that made me want to know more about why and how plants grew the way they did. I had lots of questions and since nobody I knew could answer them, when I got a little older I turned to books like Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.

 3. Black Raspberry First Year Cane 

By reading Gray’s Manual and other botany books I was able to answer many questions, like why do some plants have this bluish white coating on them? I learned that, in botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the color. The coating is called bloom and is a wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water from the leaves.  I see it mostly on plums and blueberries.

In the case of the plant in the above photo the bloom on the cane (along with the prickles) taught me that it was a black raspberry, rather than a red raspberry or a blackberry. I also learned that bloom on canes means that they are first year vegetative canes (primocanes) that would bear no fruit until their second year. There were plenty of others that did bear fruit though, and I used to eat bellyfuls of them.

 4. Winter Woods

At one time there were large fields of corn growing along the rail bed but now some of the land has started reverting back to forest.  Most of the trees seen here can’t be more than 40-45 years old. Knowing that I’m older than the trees brings on kind of an odd feeling.

I learned how badly corn plants can make you itch can be by running through the cornfields that were once here. Each corn leaf has tiny, saw tooth serrations on its edges that can cause quite a rash on exposed skin. Of course I could have prevented it by wearing a long sleeved shirt, but you would have had to have hog tied me to get long sleeves on me in the summer.

 5. Virgin's Bower Seeds

My grandmother taught me about the wind blowing pollen from one corn plant to another, but here on the tracks is where I learned how other plants use the wind. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) for instance, grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks.

 6. Feathers-2

Every time I see a feather stuck in a bush I wonder what bird left it there. I usually come away scratching my head and this time was no different.  It’s odd that the wind can send clematis seeds flying, but feathers seem to stay stuck fast to whatever they land on.

 7. Ash Swamp Brook in Winter

Ash Swamp brook meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River here.  I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy. Coming this far south down the tracks was quite an excursion but it was always worth it. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment.

 8. Willow Branches

Spring never came by the calendar here. I learned early on that plants could tell you more than the calendar ever could. Willows for example, take on a golden hue when they feel spring coming on.

 9. Pinecone Gall on Willow 

The coming of spring wasn’t the only thing willows taught me to see.  Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which let nature get its hooks into me early on.

10. American Hazelnut Catkins

This is where I also started paying attention to things like catkins; though half a century later I still struggle with the identity of some of the shrubs and trees I find them on. American hazelnut (Corylus Americana) catkins are easy because of the hairy young twigs they often hang from. These hairs are called stipitate glands. Botanically speaking a stipitate gland is a gland on the end of a stalk (stipe).  If you find a hazelnut that doesn’t have hairy young twigs and leaf petioles, it is a beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

11. Elderberry Buds

We used to make small “pipes” by hollowing out an acorn, putting a hole through the side of it, and then inserting a pipe stem. The choice for the pipe stem was always elderberry because it has soft pith that is easily pushed out of the stem with a hardwood twig.  American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) pith is white and spongy, so when you pinch its twigs between your thumb and forefinger they will deform. If it doesn’t deform it isn’t elderberry.  It’s a good thing that we kids never smoked anything in these pipes because elderberry is toxic, especially to kids who make whistles and pipe stems from its parts.

12. Puddle Ice 3

Nothing takes me back to my boyhood at this time of year like the white ice on mud puddles. I remember, once the snow melted off the roads, riding my bike to school through the ice covered puddles that froze at night and melted during the day. I can remember how my spirit soared knowing that once the white ice appeared on the puddles it wouldn’t be long until summer because these were special puddles, not caused by rain but by snow melt. Soon the red sox would once again play at Fenway Park, school would be over until fall, and everything would be right with the world. There was as much joy in the anticipation of the event as there was in the event itself. Lately I’ve been feeling that same joy anticipating the arrival of spring.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.  ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

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