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Posts Tagged ‘Blue Cohosh’

All the signs were telling me that the wild columbines should be blooming so last Saturday off I went to the rail trail in Westmoreland. I can’t say that I didn’t have a few misgivings about this hike because the last time I was out here I met up with a very big black bear. Luckily all it did was stare at me and I came away unscathed. Whether or not I would be so lucky this time remained to be seen.

Right off I spotted some coltsfoot blossoms (Tussilago farfara.) I always see them when I’m not looking for them and never when I am but I’m guessing that’s more my fault than theirs. They’re very pretty little things and I was happy to see them on this dreary day. We’ve had rain for so many days in a row I can’t remember when it started and many plants have kept their flowers closed up.

Ferns of all kinds grew all along the drainage ditches, which still work fine 150 years after the railroad built them.

I saw some fuzzy orange grape buds. I’d guess this was probably a river grape (Vitus riparia) because that’s one of our more common native grapes. They’re also called frost grapes because of the way they can stand extreme cold. In nature they climb trees up into the crown where they find plenty of sunlight.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. I thought these were red but my color finding software tells me they’re rosy brown, which seems odd. New leaves often display some unexpected colors though, because they aren’t photosynthesizing yet and aren’t using chlorophyll. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. The roots of the plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

As the trail went on I got a little more apprehensive because I was quickly approaching the spot where I ran into that bear. My ears and eyes were working overtime.

Right about here is where it was, I think. I can’t get over how big that bear was. It would have made four of me, and I’m very thankful that it didn’t decide to follow me out of here.

When you meet a bear on this trail you don’t have a lot of options. You can either walk back the way you came or you can try to get down this steep hill to the road. It might take you a half hour to reach the road from here and the bear probably under a minute, so if you meet a bear luck had better be on your side because there’s really nowhere to go. The thing that looks like a toy down there is a Greyhound bus.

I took my mind off bears by admiring beech buds, which were just breaking to reveal the beautiful new leaves, clothed in soft silver downy hairs for just a short while. In my opinion they are one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in a New England forest in the spring.

There were many maples already leafed out in many colors. These were the reddest I saw. My color finding software sees fire brick, dark red, and tomato. If these leaves had been mixed in with green leaves I never would have known they were red because for me red disappears when it meets green.

Sedges blossomed all along the trail and the cream colored male stamens stood out against the dead leaves, making them easy to see. The wispy, white female flowers have appeared under them so the male flowers must be producing pollen.

I made it to the ledges where the columbines grow without meeting any bears, so I was half way home. I wish it had been a blue sky day but you can’t have everything.

There were columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) aplenty growing on the ledges and most had buds but I didn’t see a single flower, so that means another trip out here this weekend. I don’t know what the story is with these electric shades of green but this photo is untouched, just the way it came out of the camera. Of course the settings could be wrong on this new camera, but I don’t think so.

Some buds were very close to opening but the sun hadn’t shone in over a week so maybe they were pouting. This one actually looks a little shriveled but I’m hoping I’m wrong about that.

Tall meadow rue fools a lot of people into thinking it’s columbine in early spring because the leaves look somewhat similar, but this plant quickly grows much taller than columbines. Tall meadow rue flowers (Thalictrum pubescens) always bloom close to the 4th of July.

I saw my first Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) of the year. This plant likes wet places and is also called bog onion because of its onion like root, which botanically speaking is a corm. I always lift the hood of the spathe to see “Jack,” which is the spadix, and to see the beautiful dark stripes. Another name for this plant is tcika-tape, which translates to “bad sick” in certain Native American tribal language. But they didn’t get sick on the poisonous roots because they knew how to cook them to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that make them toxic. That leads to another common name: Indian turnip.

There’s that loud green again, this time on the leaves of purple trillium (Trillium erectum.) I wonder if it’s because they haven’t received any sunlight. I also wonder if lack of light has caused so few flowers. Last year I think this clump had 6 or 7 flowers on it. This year it has one.

I know I just showed a trillium blossom in my last post but you can’t see too many trillium blossoms, in my opinion. They’re with us just a very short time.

I found the blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) that the bear turned me away from last time. I was too late now to see the new shoots coming up and the plant had no flowers on it, so I’ve simply struck out with cohosh this year. Last year the plant I saw here had quite a few flowers but this plant was in a different spot and I couldn’t find the other one. I’ve got to do more reading about this plant.

Now it was time for the return trip and since I’ve posted this you’ve probably figured out that the bear was off doing bear things and left me alone. I had a porcupine walk across a field and sit at my feet one day, and another time a barred owl let me walk right up to it as it sat in the middle of a trail, so I like to think that forest creatures can sense that I mean them no harm. All I know for sure is that the bear could’ve been on me in seconds but instead did nothing but stare. May all of us always be so fortunate in these woods.

He who would study nature in its wildness and variety, must plunge into the forest, must explore the glen, must stem the torrent, and dare the precipice. ~ Washington Irving

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I’d been almost everywhere I knew of where coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) grow and hadn’t seen a single one, so last Sunday I decided to visit the last place I knew of to find them; the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland. I don’t like going there at this time of year because this is when all the ice that has accumulated through winter starts melting, and when it starts melting it starts falling, and this can be a dangerous place to be when tree size pieces of ice come crashing down.

There was a lot more ice than I expected and it was rotten, which means it has probably released its hold on the stone and could come down at any time.

3. Falling Water

Melt water ran off the stone walls in gushing streams.

4. Trail

I decided to get out of the deepest, northern part of the canyon and head south where the coltsfoot plants grow.

5. Columbine Seedlings

This rail trail includes the ledges where the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) grow, so I thought I’d see what was happening there as well. I saw lots of columbine seedlings but still no blue cohosh shoots.

6. Red Elderberry Buds

I also got to see some red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) opening. They always open with tiny purple fingers like those seen here. It won’t be long before this plant is covered with bright red berries. The birds love them so much and eat them so fast it’s almost impossible to get a photo of them. I think I’ve gotten just one photo of red elderberry fruit in the 8 years I’ve done this blog.

7. Turkey Tail

I saw a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) wearing colors that I don’t often see. I’ve been seeing a lot of blue ones this year so this one was a pleasant surprise.

8. Unknown

I also found this chunk of blue something. It’s light and feels like plastic but it also crumbles so I doubt it is. I don’t know what it is or where it came from but I love its color; almost the same as the blue of cohosh fruit.

9. Unknown Stems

And then I saw these strange little trumpet shaped stems. They easily pulled right out of the wet soil and had a tap root.

10. Unknown Stem

The stems were thin and hollow and felt like paper. I don’t know what plant they’re from but there is a huge selection of plants growing here. I’ll have to see if I can figure it out in the summer when they’re growing.

11. Drainage Ditch

The drainage ditches had so much water in them in places it looked like they would wash up over the trail. I moved some bunches of wet leaves that were holding back the flow in a couple of places.

12. Fallen Ice

And this is where I had to stop. If you look closely you can see ice columns that have fallen completely across the trail. These columns are huge, easily as big as trees, and if one ever fell on you it wouldn’t be good.

13. Fallen Ice

This “small piece” was about two feet square. I can’t imagine what it must have weighed but I wouldn’t want to feel it falling on me.

14. Green Ice

The ice here is often colored, I think because of the various minerals in the groundwater, and there was some green ice left. It was very rotten and I didn’t get near it. Rotten ice has a matte, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it gives it away. It should sound like a sharp crack. Ice becomes rotten when air and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

15. Great Scented Liverwort

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) made it through the winter just fine despite many of them being completely encased in ice. They like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water but of course in winter that means ice. They show that the groundwater here is very clean and most likely drinkable.

16. Great Scented Liverwort

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant and they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle. I didn’t have my rubber boots with me to walk through the drainage ditches so I had to take this shot from about 6 feet away, but at least you can see the pores and air chambers outlined on the many leaf surfaces. It makes them look very reptilian and leads to the name snakeskin liverwort.

17. Algae

The green algae called Trentepohlia aurea looks to be spreading some. Though it is called green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes it orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you. Algae produce millions of spores and colored rain has fallen all over the world because of the wind taking the spores up into the sky. If you ever hear of red rain chances are it’s algae spores coloring it.

18. Mosses

It was so nice to see so much green for a change. It was also nice and warm here, which was a surprise with all the ice.

19. Ostrich Fern Frond

I was surprised to find the fertile frond of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) because I’ve never seen one growing here. Now I want to come back to get photos of the fiddleheads, which are pretty and very hard to find in this area. There are thousands of ostrich ferns growing along the Connecticut River but most of the land along it is privately owned.

20. Unknown Leaf

Well, in the end I never did find coltsfoot plants in bloom but I certainly found lots of mysteries along the trail on this day. Here’s another one that maybe one of you can solve. I know I’ve seen this plant and I should know its name, but I can’t think of it. The leaves are large at about an inch and a half across, and I think the bronze color is just what they do in winter. They sprawl on the ground in all directions from a central crown like a violet, but the leaves are too big to be a violet. It’s a pretty thing but without flowers it’s hard to identify.

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford

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Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

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Seeing the purple trilliums bloom told me that it was time to walk down an old rail trail in Westmoreland to see the wild columbines bloom. But purple trilliums aren’t the only sign and I almost turned back when I saw that the red elderberry at the start of the trail wasn’t blooming yet. So far every time I’ve seen the columbines in bloom the red elderberry was blooming as well.

There has been a lot of logging going on up here over the past few years and you can now see deep into the forest, which is or was mostly beech, maple and oak. I was glad I could see so far because this is known bear country up here. I had a can of bear spray with me but I’m hoping I never have to use it. If I saw a bear way off in the distance I’d sooner leave the woods to it rather than spray it.

It was a little disorienting to see the plants so far along here. Here were ferns in leaf while in Keene they were barely out of the ground.

I was just taking photos of striped maple buds (Acer pennsylvanicum) breaking the day before and here they were in leaf.

I hadn’t seen any sign of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) in Keene but here it was in its strange, clasping pose. This is how it looks just before its leaves unfurl.

Some plants had even leafed out already. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which also comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves.

What looks like a dark tunnel is where we’re going. Once you get there you find that it isn’t dark and it isn’t a tunnel.

But what was that up ahead?

Beech bud break; one of my favorite things to see in the spring forest. They are this beautiful for a very short time; less than a day before leafing out completely. It usually starts when the buds begin to curl in mid-May, so these were early. At this point I hadn’t seen any sign of bud break in Keene.

I don’t know how long I stood there admiring the new leaves and taking photos but it was a good while. This only happens on one or two days each year and I usually lose myself in the beauty of it for a while. In what seems like no time at all the new leaves will lose their silver fringe and become completely green for the summer. If I’d seen no more of nature for the rest of the day I still would have been very happy. I do hope readers of this blog will look for new leaves in spring. They can be astoundingly beautiful and they’re so easy to find.

Here we are already. These ledges were made when the railroad cut its way through in the mid-1800s. It is part of the same rail trail that the Westmoreland deep cut is on, which I’ve posted about regularly over the years. The major difference in the two cuts is how this wall of this cut is bathed in sunshine for much of the day. It means that a lot of different species of wildflowers can grow here. I have a feeling that this ledge is lime rich because wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) prefers a slightly alkaline soil.

There they were and I was surprised, because though every other plant I had seen here was ahead of its cousins to the south the columbines were not. They were heavily budded though and I won’t mind another walk out here to see the blossoms. Most of the columbines grow over my head on the ledges so getting good photos of them can be difficult. I tried climbing up to them once and slipped on the oak leaves, landing in a very undignified heap at the foot of the ledge.

This bud was within reach and had a few stamens poking out. It also had what looks like a tiny insect egg on it, there on the left. I’m guessing that it would have been about the size of a single letter in any word of this sentence as they appear here; so very small I didn’t even see it until I looked at the photo.

The flower buds on this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) were clearly visible but I haven’t seen this plant anywhere near this far along in Keene. It must be the bright sunshine up here, or the fact that cold air runs downhill like water and pools in the valleys like the one Keene is in. This must be some type of microclimate.

Jack in the pulpit plants (Arisaema triphyllum) were blooming on the ledges. I always lift the hood of the spathe to see “Jack,” which is the spadix, and to see the beautiful dark stripes. Another name for this plant is tcika-tape, which translates to “bad sick” in certain Native American tribal language. But they didn’t get sick on the poisonous roots because they knew how to cook them to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that make them toxic. That leads to another common name: Indian turnip.

I’ve always thought of the spadix in a Jack in the pulpit as being black, but the bright sunshine shows it to actually be more plum colored. If you’re looking for Jack in the pulpit yet another name for it is bog onion, and that should tell you that it likes low, damp places. But it will also grow on stone as it does here, as long as there is dripping groundwater to keep it good and moist.

There is a large clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here as well.

I know I just showed a purple trillium in my last post but who can resist something as beautiful as this? They’ll be gone before we know it.

In my last post I told about finding marsh marigold, which is a plant I’d never seen, and here was another one I’d never seen: blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides.) Cohosh is believed to be an Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit and in this case the blue refers to the berries. The stems and leaves also have a blueish cast. I think this must have been this plant’s first year here. It stood knee high right next to the trail and was quite bushy, so I surely would have seen it last year. It is said to be long lived when it grows in a place that it likes.

Each of the 6 yellow green petal-like sepals of the blue cohosh flower contains a nectar gland to attract spring insects. The flowers are small at about 1/2 inch across. 6 yellow stamens form a ring around the green center ovary. The true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. Though both Native Americans and early settlers used the plant medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including childbirth, it contains alkaloids and all parts of it should be considered toxic.

Though the flower buds showed some blue the name blue cohosh actually comes from the blue fruit, which looks much like a blueberry but isn’t really a berry at all. They are actually brown seeds with a dark blue fleshy seed coat that protects them. The naked seeds are considered the plant’s fruit but are poisonous. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the “berries” when they ripen in summer. It also has beautiful dark blue shoots as it comes out of the ground in spring, so of course I’ll have to be here next year to see that as well. I certainly haven’t seen every plant there is to see but I’ve seen many, so finding two plants I’ve never seen before in one day really amazed me. I think I had a great week. Tomorrow I’ll go back to see those columbines in bloom.

My relationship to plants becomes closer and closer. They make me quiet; I like to be in their company. ~Peter Zumthor

Thanks for stopping in. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there!

 

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