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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Alexanders’

It got to be sunny and hot for a change last Saturday so I sought out the natural cooling of the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It’s usually about ten degrees cooler in there with almost always a bit of a breeze. After I spent some time in the man made canyon in the above photo I was wishing I had worn something a little warmer, so the natural air conditioner was working. Out there it was 80 degrees F. but in here it felt more like 60.

But that was in the deepest, darkest part of the trail. Once I found some sunlight it warmed to a more pleasant temperature.

I come here quite often at all times of year and each season has much beauty to offer. In spring there is an explosion of growth on the stone walls of the man made canyon, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La described in the book Lost Horizons by James Hilton. When I was a boy I dreamed of being a world traveling plant hunter who brought back exotic plants from far away places, and in my imagination many of those places looked a lot like this.

Groundwater drips constantly down the stone walls of the canyon and many hundreds of species of plants, mosses, ferns, grasses, liverworts and even trees grow on the stone walls, among them the marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) seen here.

The violets also grow thickly all along the sides of the trail.

For every thousand blue violets there is a white one. Actually I can’t guess the numbers but white violets are scarce here.

Heart leaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) also grow here by the thousands. They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The strangest thing I saw on this trip was this dandelion stem, which had split in half and curled tightly on either side of the split. I can’t even guess how it might have happened.

I saw a very pretty white moth on a leaf. It had fringe on its wings and that fringe made it easy to identify as the white spring moth (Lomographa vestaliata,) which has a range from Newfoundland west to south-eastern British Columbia and south to Florida and Texas. It likes forest edges.

I saw an unusual flat, antler like fungus growing on a log. The log was down in one of the drainage ditches so I couldn’t get close to it. I haven’t been able to identify it and I wonder if it isn’t a badly degraded bracket fungus from last year. It looked relatively fresh but without touching it, it’s hard to tell.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll. It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color.

Something else unusual is a dandelion growing on stone. I think everyone knows that dandelions have taproots, so how does that work on stone? Maybe there is an unseen crack in the stone that the 4-6 inch long root grew into, I don’t know. Maybe the constant watering means the dandelion doesn’t need a taproot.

I like the fern like leaves of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) which grows along the trail. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been shown to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties. It isn’t the same plant as cultivated chervil used to flavor soups though, so it shouldn’t be eaten. In many places it is called cow parsley.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) also grows along the trail and there are lots of them here, now gone to seed. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia and was brought here by early settlers. It has been used medicinally for centuries and another name for it is coughwort.

So many plants, so little time. The lushness of this place is really quite amazing. Except for the narrow trail nearly every square inch, be it horizontal or vertical, is covered with some type of growth.

One of the plants that grow here are the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) that grow on the stones by the thousands. This is the only place I’ve ever seen them and I think that’s because the conditions here are perfect for them. They like to grow in places where they never dry out and the constant drip of the groundwater makes that possible. They like to be wet but they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time so growing on the vertical walls above the drainage channels is ideal.

Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and there was lots of it.

This is one of the most beautiful liverworts in my opinion because of its reptilian appearance, which is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

One of the plants growing here that I wasn’t happy to see was garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata.) It’s an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. Garlic Mustard spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to an article I read in the New York Times a few years ago, it’s delicious.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) like wet, sunny meadows and open woodlands so it was no surprise to see them growing in drifts as I left the canyon and moved into open meadows. It is said to be an important plant to a number of short-tongued insects that are able to easily reach the nectar in the small yellow flowers. Each flower is only about an eighth of an inch long and has five sepals, five petals, and five stamens. They’re also very difficult to get a good photo of, for some reason.

If I could walk through the canyon with my eyes closed it wouldn’t take too long to reach the old lineman’s shack but since I dilly dally and stop to look at anything that seems interesting and / or beautiful it usually takes a good two hours, so I’ve made what’s left of the shack my turn around point. Picked apart board by board over the years by those wanting to bridge the drainage ditches, it has become a symbol of strength and longevity for me, still standing and bearing heavy snow loads with only two walls left. It was certainly built to last; the the railroad came through here in the mid 1800s.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

Thanks for coming by.

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There are flowers blooming everywhere here right now. I’m not sure how I’ll ever show them all to you, but I’ll do my best. Pussytoes (Antennaria) are popping up everywhere. One day I saw a large circular colony of them and noticed that half of them were a darker shade of gray than the other half. I went home and did some reading and found that there are close to 45 species of pussytoes! Ugh-a plant hunter’s worst nightmare comes true!  Pussytoes are a favorite of many butterfly species. Another common name for the plant is everlasting.  This is Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. Garlic Mustard flower. Garlic Mustard spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. This plant is also in the mustard family and is called winter cress or yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris.) It is very easy to confuse with our native common field mustard (Brassica rapa or Brassica campestris.)  This plant is native to Africa, Asia and Europe and is found throughout the U.S. In some states it is considered a noxious weed. In the south it is called creasy greens. It is also known as scurvy grass due to its ability to prevent scurvy because of its high vitamin C content. A winter cress colony. Winter cress is about knee-high when it blooms in spring and stays green under the snow all winter. This habit is what gives it its common name.Foam flowers (Tiarella) are carpeting parts of the forest floor now and just coming into bloom. They are easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks. The leaves are bright green at first and then turn a darker green sometimes mottled with brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers.  Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) is not native to New Hampshire and I have only seen two of the trees growing in this area. Both are on private property but this one had branches overhanging a sidewalk so I was able to get close to it. The hardiness of this tree can be questionable here unless trees started from northern grown seed are planted. Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus ) takes quite a long time to bloom after it makes its first appearance in early spring. I think I saw my first plant in early March and this is the first blossom I’ve seen since. This plant originally comes from Europe and Asia and is considered invasive. The yellow / orange colored sap that I think we all remember from childhood has been used medicinally for thousands of years, even though it is considered toxic and can irritate the skin and eyes. It is said that it can also cause liver damage if used incorrectly. This phlox was growing in a local park. I don’t know if it is our native Wild Blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) or not. Since there was an identical plant with pink flowers there I’m wondering if it isn’t Meadow phlox (Phlox maculata.) The two species look very much alike and unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to make a positive identification. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) are common in moist areas. These were growing in a sunny spot beside a stream.  They are native and are thought to be a good wetland indicator. They are also very beneficial to many insects and often used in butterfly gardens.  Golden Alexanders are in the carrot family (Apiaceae) along with many extremely toxic plants like water hemlock, which is deadly. Great care should be taken when using any wild plant from this family, especially if it has white flowers. Solomon’s seal (polygonatum biflorum) is also very early this year. I’m surprised that our recent cold nights didn’t harm it. This plant has been used medicinally for centuries. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant. Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is also called bog onion or Indian turnip. What is seen here is not the flower; the striped outer “pulpit” is a spathe, which is essentially a sheath that protects the flowers.  “Jack,” who lives under the pulpit just like an old time New England preacher, is a spadix, which is a fleshy stem that bears the flowers. Few actually see the small flowers of a Jack in the Pulpit because they form down inside the spathe. I usually open the pulpit for a moment just to see what Jack is up to. This early in the year Jack has just come up and is waiting for fungus flies who think they smell mushrooms to come and fertilize his flowers. If they do the spathe will die back and a cluster of green berry-like fruit will form where the flowers were. These will turn bright red after a time and a deer might come along and eat them, helping to spread the seeds.  Since this one is growing right next to a game trail by a stream, there is a good chance of that happening. The root, which is a corm, may be eaten if it is cooked thoroughly but is extremely toxic when uncooked. Johnny jump ups (Viola cornuta ) are doing just that in my lawn, which already needs mowing, so I’d better get it done. I’ll mow around the violets, bluets, pussy toes, wood sorrel, strawberries, and anything else that looks more interesting than grass.

Most of the flowers shown here are wildflowers but we shouldn’t forget that there are many beautiful cultivated flowers that also bloom in the spring. Next time I’ll show you some of those.  I hope you enjoy seeing what’s blooming here in New Hampshire. Thanks for stopping in.

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