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Posts Tagged ‘Great Scented Liverwort’

Last Saturday I went into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland to see if I could find some turtlehead blossoms. I know two or three places where they grow but when I checked the other locations I didn’t even see the plants, much less the blossoms. This man made canyon was blasted out of the bedrock in the mid-1800s by the railroad and it has become a hidden gem of nature, with plants growing here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The section shown above is the northern section; what I think of as the “sterile” part, where it’s too dark for all but a few mosses to grow. I had to boost the ISO on my camera as high as it would go just to get this shot, and it was a sunny, bright day.

When I enter the trail I turn south to follow the part of the trail seen here. It starts with huge retaining walls on both sides of the trail, and they answer the question of what the railroad did with all the stone they blasted out of the canyon. This is a good lesson for all the wall builders out there; you can see how the wall tilts back into the hillside, usually at about 10-15 degrees. This adds to the strength of the wall. Behind most retaining walls here in the northeast you’ll find sand, gravel or other porous material so water will drain away from the wall. In this climate the last thing you want behind your wall is wet soil, because when it freezes and expands in the winter it will tear your wall apart. These walls have stood for 150 years and I’m guessing they’ll still be here hundreds of years from now if people leave them alone.

Lush growth is what you find when you walk south on this trail. Every inch of the trail is filled with plants and it doesn’t end there, because the canyon walls are also covered with plants of all kinds.

One of the first thigs I found was a big, yellow spider. I think it was one of the orb weaver spiders (Argiope.)

Possibly a marbled orb weaver, but I haven’t been able to pin it down. It was weaving with plenty of silken threads as I watched. I know that  some of you get creeped out by spiders but if you can just try to put that aside for a moment and just appreciate their various forms and colors and the intricacies of their webs, and realize that they have a right to a place in this world as much or maybe even more than we have, maybe someday you will be able to get along. With me it isn’t spiders but rats, and I’m trying too.

I saw lots of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) along the trail and I noticed that the flowers with the deepest shade of blue were those that grew in the deepest shade. The ones that grew in the sunnier spots were much lighter in color. I’ll have to remember that when I look for them next year.

There are also lots of purple flowering raspberry plants (Rubus odoratus) here. Because they have large light gathering leaves they can grow in surprisingly shaded places, and even bloom as this one was doing.

The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks, not surprisingly, like a giant raspberry. They’re about the size of the tip of your thumb. I’ve heard that it is close to tasteless but some say if you put a berry on the very tip of your tongue it will be delicious, so I tried it. I can’t say it was tasteless but it seemed a bit sour, with a flavor that is hard to describe. It didn’t taste like a raspberry and I can’t say it was delicious, but that might have been because I was chewing peppermint gum, which I often do on hikes to give my breathing a boost. The gum is very sweet and that might account for the sourness of the berry. I’ll have to try again without the taste of peppermint fresh in my mouth.  

And I saw turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia); in fact I saw more blooming plants than I’ve ever seen anywhere else, so they obviously like it here. Turtlehead plants seem to have a problem with diseases and pests. Quite often I see the leaves and flower buds at the top of the plant curl and deform, and there are at least two different species of sawfly larvae that feed on the plant, but nothing seems to bother them much here.

The turtlehead plant gets the first part of its scientific name from Chelone of Greek mythology. She was a nymph who insulted the gods and was turned into a turtle for her trouble. I have a friend who said he immediately thought of a turtle when he saw these flowers but for some reason I never see a turtle when I look at them. I’ve always thought it was interesting how two or more people could look at the same thing and give very different descriptions of what they had seen.

In my last flower post I showed hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) blossoms. What I didn’t mention was how I had to search high and wide to find them in bloom, and here they were blooming more prolifically than I’ve ever seen. Great handfuls of the small flowers hung from the undersides of the vines.

The berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) turn from green to red and for a short time they are speckled with both colors, as these were.  I’ve read that soil pH can affect the fruit color. Native American’s used all parts of this plant including its roots, which contain lye and must be boiled and rinsed several times before they can be used. Birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters eat the ripe berries that grow at the end of the stem. They are said to taste like molasses and another common name for the plant is treacle berry.

Can you be happy and heartsick at the same time? If you’re a summer lover who has just found New England asters blooming the answer is yes, because though the flowers are beautiful they also mean that fall is very near. It’s a season that always seems to sneak up on me and I’m not sure that I’ve ever really been ready for it.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are our biggest and showiest native aster and the large, inch and a half diameter blossoms come in varying shades of purple. Some can be almost white and some are very dark. I like the dark ones but I don’t need to see them right away.

White wood asters (Aster divaricatus) also bloom here in great profusion. Though it is very wet here this plant is known for its drought tolerance, and it will grow under a heavy leaf canopy. The stalked, coarsely toothed, heart shaped leaves help with identifying this plant. The small, half inch flowers of white wood asters can have red or yellow centers. This aster is very easy to grow and makes an excellent choice for a dry shaded woodland garden. It is best used in mass plantings and many nurseries sell native asters grown from seed. Where I work they’re used as under plantings for lilacs, but the choice was theirs and they moved under the lilacs completely on their own.

When I was a boy I loved to read about far off jungles and I dreamed of being a plant hunter. Off I’d go to places no one had ever heard of and I’d bring back plants so beautiful tears of joy would fall when people saw them, and mere words couldn’t describe them. One of the places I read about was fictional but it was still my kind of place, and this place reminds me of it; the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon. He described Shangri-La as an earthly paradise, and that’s what this place seems to me. It sends me away; out of myself into a waking dream, and the beauty and the dream draw me back here again and again.

This is a place where coltsfoot grows on stone, and it can do that because of the constant drip of groundwater. Every plant here has a never ending supply of rich minerals and water, and that’s what makes the place so lush.

The smaller plants growing around the coltsfoot in the previous photo are great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow here by the thousands. They are one of the plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and they’re one of the reasons I come here.

To get close to the liverworts you have to be willing to walk in the drainage ditches and I wear rubber boots to get through them, but there’s nothing I can do about the falling rocks. You can see them scattered around in this photo and apparently they fall quite regularly. I’ve only seen them fall a couple of times though so I cross my fingers and don’t dilly dally when I’m near the liverwort ledges; a couple of quick photos and I’m out of there.

And then I can come home and admire these beautiful things in a photo. The reptilian appearance 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.

The great scented liverwort is like one of those plants I used to dream I’d bring back from far away places. It’s such a beautiful thing and it somehow manages to look both plant and animal at the same time. 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 I saw lots of it.

I’ve walked this trail a hundred times I’d bet, and in all those times I’ve never seen white snakeroot growing here. It wasn’t flowering but that doesn’t matter, because I’d like you to see its leaves. Though its flowers resemble those of boneset, which flowers at the same time, white snakeroot’s (Ageratina altissima) large heart shaped, toothed leaves look nothing like boneset leaves. This plant is very toxic and in the early 19th century it killed thousands of settlers in the Midwest. A compound called trematol is passed from the plant to cows that graze on it and when humans drank the milk before too long they started to show signs of what was called “milk sickness.” In a week or less most would die of heart or liver failure. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness when he was just 9 years old. All parts of the plant are toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. Today’s farmers eradicate the plant from their pastures and mix the milk from many cows together, so milk sickness is almost unheard of. A Native American woman from the Shawnee tribe is credited with finally warning settlers about this plant and most likely saving thousands of lives.

Individual white snakeroot flowers are small, bright white, and fuzzy, much like those of the boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) flowers shown here. But look closely at the leaf shape and then scroll up and look at the leaves of white snakeroot again and you’ll see that they’re very different. The reason I’m harping about this is because boneset is used medicinally, and if you mistake snakeroot for boneset you could find yourself in dire straits, even in Shangri-La.  

I wonder if everyone who comes through here marvels at the staying power of the old lineman’s shack. It has been slowly picked apart over the years by those wanting boards to bridge the drainage ditches and every time I come here I expect it to be down, but here it stands to this day, over a hundred years later. It’s a testament to the quality workmanship of the railroad workers who once populated this place.

I know paradise has many gates, just as hell does. One has to learn to distinguish between them, or one is lost. ~Henning Mankell

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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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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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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We’ve seen some unusual below zero F. cold lately and when it gets cold like this my thoughts usually turn to a deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland that ice climbers call the icebox. The groundwater constantly seeping from thousands of cracks in the stone walls of the manmade canyon freezes into ice columns that can easily reach the size of trees. It can be very beautiful but since it is only November I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Though I doubted there would be much ice to see, last Saturday I made the drive to Westmoreland to find out.

There was some impressive ice to be seen but nothing like it will be in January.

There are a lot of minerals in the groundwater that seeps through the stone and they are the only thing I can think of that would color ice like this.

I’ve seen orange, green, blue, red, tan, brown and even black ice here.

The giant ice columns are like a magnet for ice climbers and members of the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club come here to train beginning climbers. I was surprised to see some of them here on this day since it is so early in the season.

This should give you an idea of the scale of the place. Though the ice might look impressive it is much less so than it will be in a couple of months. This climber said she was a beginner but she had climbed just about as far up as she could. The ledges in this spot I’d guess are about 50 feet high. Though it was cold at about 40 degrees this day I’ve read that the ideal conditions for climbing happen at between 20 and 35 degrees, because those temperatures produce the just right “plastic” ice; not cold enough to shatter and not warm enough to melt. Ice climbers swing sharp tools called picks into the ice and embed them in it so they can hang onto them as they climb, and I would guess that the last thing they want to see is shattering ice. Since the temperature in the canyon is always colder than the surrounding countryside it must have been just about perfect for plastic ice on this day.

This view looks back the way we came in. It can be very cold in here because the sunlight rarely seems to reach the canyon floor in winter. There is almost always a breeze blowing through the canyon as well, even when there is no breeze outside. It’s as if it makes its own wind.

The railroad engineers used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the canyon to build massive retaining walls along the parts of the trail outside of the canyon. They are some of the best examples of stone wall building that I know of and you won’t find a teaspoon of mortar in any of these walls. Note how the wall leans back into the hillside at about a 10 degree angle, as any good retaining wall should. I’d bet next week’s paycheck that a bed of crushed stone or gravel extends out at least two or three feet from the back of the wall into the hillside. This is for drainage so wet soil doesn’t freeze behind the wall and heave it apart. You want the back of the wall as dry as possible.

I like to see how the ice forms according to the conditions. This little grotto scene looked almost other worldly.

This ice looked like a necklace made of clear crystal, all formed by drip after drip of water.

In places the ice was rotten, and you can tell that by its matte gray, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it. Ice becomes rotten when air  and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

In some places where the sun reached the walls of the cut ice had been falling, and in fact I saw (and heard) some  fall while I was here.

I thought how, if I was a teenager once again, I’d find a way to slide down this giant ice slide.

I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good year for ice formations even though the forecast is for rain and above freezing temps this week.

Drainage ditches along the railbed have been doing their job of directing all of this water out of the canyon for around 150 years, but heavy rain overwhelmed them last summer and washed away parts of the railbed. It’s a hard thing to see this place being so severely damaged but there is only so much the snowmobile club volunteers can do, I suppose. One day instead of a railbed here it might be a stream.

In places the stone is stained by years of mineral seepage.

In other places the colors on the walls come from living things, like this algae, but I don’t think they color the ice because they don’t grow where a lot of ice accumulates. This is actually a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea but the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Colorful foam gathered on one of the drainage ditches in what I thought were beautiful swirling patterns. What caused it to appear and what colored it, I don’t know.

I didn’t have my high rubber boots with me on this trip so I couldn’t get close enough to the canyon walls to get close shots of the algae or the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) seen here. This beautiful, reptilian liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here on the  canyon walls just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, which has just started happening to the plants in this shot.

We’re having some wet heavy snows this month but the old lineman’s shack still somehow stands, even though people have been pulling it apart for as long as I’ve known about it. It just goes to show how the railroad built things to last. Their carpenters were as good as their stone masons. I hope it’s still standing a month from now when I come back to see how the ice has grown.

The splendor of Silence,—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Keen observers of the flowers that bloom in spring probably noticed that there weren’t any coltsfoot flowers in my last post. That’s because I hadn’t seen any yet, even though I had been to every place I knew of where they bloom. Except one, I remembered; the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland that the ice climbers call the “Icebox” has a lot of coltsfoot plants along the trail. So, though I wasn’t sure what I’d find, last Sunday off I went. What I found was where winter has been hiding. As the above photo shows there was still plenty of ice clinging to the man-made canyon walls.

But the ice was rotten and melting quickly. Ice this big can be very dangerous when it falls, so I don’t get near it. I thought it had been warm enough to melt all the ice and snow here but obviously I was wrong.

The opaque gray color is a sure sign of rotten ice. Ice is rotten when the bonds between ice crystals begin to break down because of air and dirt coming between them.

Water was literally pouring from the walls. The groundwater always seeps and drips here but on this day it was running with more force than I’ve ever seen so I think it was meltwater.

And then I saw this fallen ice column. It looked like a boat and was as big as one that would fit 5 people. If this ever fell on a person it would crush them, so I decided to turn back and get out of here.

The view further down the trail didn’t look safe at all with all the ice columns melting in the sunshine, and there was what looked like a pile of ice down there.

That’s what it was; a pile of huge ice chunks all across the trail. I know it’s hard to judge the scale of things in a photo but these ice columns are as big as trees. Actually there is a fallen tree over on the left.

Here’s a shot of some ice climbers taken in February to give new readers an idea of the size of this ice. Some of it is huge.

I think that part of the reason the ice columns fall like they do is because the water in the drainage ditches along the side of the trail erode their bases away, as can be seen in this photo.

Ice isn’t the only thing that falls here. Stones fall from the ledges regularly and I saw at least three fallen trees on this day. I’m reminded each time I come here how dangerous the place can be, but it is also a place where I can see things that I can’t see anywhere else.

One of the things I can’t see anywhere else is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) They grow here by the thousands and I’ve learned to expect them to look a little tattered and worn in spring, because most are covered by ice all winter. By June though they’ll all be a beautiful pea green. Another name for the plant is snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. Its pores and air chambers our outlined on its surface, and that gives it a very reptilian look. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

I decided to look a little closer at areas with no ice or leaning trees nearby and I’m glad I did because I saw many interesting things, like what I believe is yew leaved pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolius.) This little moss grows in very wet places on the ledges where water drips on it almost constantly. Pocket mosses get their common name from the way the lower lobe of each leaf curls around its stem to form a pocket. This example was a little beat up because it has also most likely been under ice all winter.

Grasses were just coming up in the drainage ditches that follow along each side of the trail. The beech leaf in the foreground will give you an idea of their size.

I saw a large patch of moss on part of a ledge.

It turned out to be Hedwigia ciliata, which is a very common but an uncommonly beautiful moss. It’s also called white tipped moss because its branch tips are often bright white. I usually see it on stones in full sun.

Seedlings were coming up among the mosses. I’m not sure what they are because they had no true leaves yet but I do know that Jack in the pulpit plants grow all along this section of ledge. Many different species of aster also grow on the stone. It reminds me of a radish seedling.

I found that green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) darkens when wet. This hairy alga is orange because of the pigment beta carotene hiding the green chlorophyll. It grows out of direct sunlight on the damp rock walls.

I thought I’d practice my photography skills by trying to get a shot of a stone filled with mica. It isn’t as easy as it sounds because each piece of mica is like a tiny mirror that amplifies the sunlight.

If I could have gotten closer to the ice columns I would have shown you that the ice comes in many colors here. One of the colors is a reddish orange and I believe that it comes from iron leaching from the soil and stone. The above photo is of a spot in the woods where a pool of water was. When the water evaporated it left behind the minerals it carried, in this case probably iron.

I saw this bubbly mass in one of the drainage ditches. I’m not sure but I think it’s some type of algae. It reminds me of the spyrogyra algae I saw a few years ago. That example was on a very wet stone outcrop and this one was in water. I’ve read that it is most abundant in early spring and that the bubbles come from trapped gasses. It isn’t something I see regularly.

I never did find any coltsfoot flowers to show you but there were plenty of other interesting things to see. I also never made it all the way to the old lineman’s shack because of all the fallen ice, but I did see a piece of it; this plank from it was being used as a bridge to cross the drainage ditch. I wish people wouldn’t keep pulling the old shed apart but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it.

Nature is never static. It is always changing. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing endures. Everything is in the process of either coming into being or expiring.
~Kilroy J. Oldster

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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After posting the 2 part blog post just before Christmas about searching a new rail trail to find ledges where huge icicles might grow I realized that many readers might have no idea why I would be looking for such things, so I visited one of my favorite rail trails in Westmoreland. This is a deep cut that was blasted through a hillside in the mid-1800s so the Cheshire Railroad could get to Vermont. Groundwater constantly seeps through fissures in the stone and in winter it freezes into huge ice columns as big as tree trunks.

The size of the ice columns can be quite amazing but sometimes the minerals in the groundwater color them and make them even more amazing. The walls of this man made canyon soar up to 50 feet high in places so the ice columns also get very tall. They must be perfect for climbing because the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to hold ice climbing clinics.

As luck would have it they were there climbing the ice on this day. Though I didn’t ask I’m assuming that the climber in this photo was relatively new to climbing, because he was on ice that wasn’t very tall. I met climbers here last year who described this kind of climb as a “baby climb.” Just to get used to it, I would think. I try not to be too intrusive or distracting when I see climbers so I don’t ask to many questions for fear of breaking their concentration.

If you are wondering what became of all that blasted stone, in this case the railroad used it to build mighty retaining walls along the sides of the cut where there was hillside soil that had to be held back.

This view is of the opposite end of the canyon from where the ice climbers climb. Though the ice here is nearly as big as on the other end I’ve never seen them climb here, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally figured out why.

At least I think I know why they don’t climb here. The drainage ditches are full of water on this end of the canyon and there is no water in them where the climbers climb. These ditches are almost knee deep in places and I’d hate to climb down an icicle and find my feet in frigid water. This is the section where most of the interesting plants grow though, so when I need to get close to the walls I put on rubber boots and walk in the ditches. I don’t do it often because of the danger of falling ice and stone, but I’ve done it a few times.

These drainage ditches were designed to carry water out of and away from the rail bed, so the water is always flowing like a stream, and the movement keeps the ice columns from growing any further than the surface of the water. It looks like they have been cut off right at the water’s surface all the way down the ditches.

It’s always cold here in winter and it often gets cold enough to freeze the surface of the drainage ditches, and that’s what happened in a few spots on this day. Where they had frozen over long feathers of hoar frost had grown. Without thinking I hold my breath when I’m taking photos of these beautiful, fragile things because all it takes is the warmth of a stray breath to destroy them.

In some places the hoar frost had grown into sharp looking needles. It’s odd to think of frost growing on ice but it happens quite frequently when conditions are right. Humidity seems to play a large part in it.

I’ve learned much from this man made canyon and one of the chief things among them is how cold can change the appearance of stone. It brings out colors in the stone for instance, that aren’t seen when it’s warmer. Colored stains from over a hundred years of seeping, mineral laden groundwater appear as if by magic when it gets cold.

But do the minerals color the ice? I think they do, because I can’t think of any other thing that would. And the color doesn’t come in just green; I’ve also seen orange, blue, brown, and even black ice here. The blue ice is colored by its own density and clarity and by the way it reflects light, but the other colors must come from some foreign material. Brown ice for example, might simply be colored by soil. Orange ice could be colored by the iron in the stone. There’s a lot of it here.

You can see in places how the mineral laden water colors the snow as well as the ice.

Ice isn’t the only reason I come here. There are many unusual plants here that I don’t see anywhere else, and one of them is the green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it’s called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color them orange. It’s the same pigment found in carrots, but in this instance it hides the green chlorophyll in the algae. I couldn’t get close enough to show it but these algae are very hairy. Though I’ve seen orange ice here it wasn’t where the few colonies of algae grow so I doubt they have anything to do with coloring ice. I keep hoping to see the algae producing spores, but so far I haven’t had any luck. In certain parts of the world algae have produced enough spores to color the rain. If you ever hear of red rain falling chances are it’s because of algae spores.

Another plant that I come here to see is the beautiful, reptilian, great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) This liverwort gets its common name from its clean, fresh scent. It is the only liverwort with this reptilian appearance, so it’s easy to identify. They grow on these ledges by the thousand, constantly watered by splashing groundwater. They like a lot of water but it has to be absolutely clean and unpolluted, so finding this liverwort is a good indicator of very clean water.

White tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) also grew in an area where it was constantly splashed by dripping groundwater, and the tiny water droplets made it even more beautiful. One of the first things you notice here in this icy canyon is the sound of dripping water. It seeps and drips year round, winter and summer, through the entire length of the canyon and the sound can be very pleasing or very annoying, depending on your mood. I’ve met people here who described it both ways. There are those who feel that the sound of water intrudes on the peacefulness of a place I suppose, but to me it is like a musical gift from the earth.

Can Ice be beautiful? Oh yes it can, and these windblown icicles looked every bit as beautiful as Lalique crystal to me. For those who may not know, Rene Lalique was a French glass designer who practiced his art in the Art Noveau period (1890-1910.) He is known today for his opaque, matte finish glass, which can look much like these icicles. He was completion for Louis Comfort Tiffany, so if you received a piece of Lalique crystal for Christmas you are very lucky indeed.

Unfortunately, though the opaque finish on Lalique crystal means good things, on ice it does not; especially if you happen to be an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign of rotten ice, and a good sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head.

Each winter I come here and stand in awe of the old lineman’s shack, which still stands against the weight of the snow even though it lacks half its roof, a wall and a half, and most of its floor. It has stood here for well over a century and is the very definition of well built. If it wasn’t for people slowly pulling it apart I have no doubt it would still look just as it did when it was built.

The sun was getting lower and a single ray fell on a green icicle. Though it lit up the icicle it had no heat to melt it, and this reminded me how very cold it was here on this day. This canyon usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is on the outside and it was 27 degrees F when I came in, so it was no wonder that my toes were cold. I always have to be careful that I don’t wander too far out of myself and get lost in this winter beauty because frostbite is always close by.

With a last look at some beautiful little frost feathers back out into the world I went, hoping that it would be just a bit warmer there. I’ll have to return in a month or two when the icicles should be as big as trees.

In the winter the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Thanks for coming by.

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We’ve had a return to summer here in southwestern New Hampshire and it was a hot, humid day when I sought out the natural air conditioning of the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It’s always about 10 degrees cooler here and there is almost always a breeze blowing through the man-made canyon. The canyon was hacked out of the bedrock by railroad workers in the mid-1800s. The rails are long gone but luckily, thanks to the efforts of local snowmobile clubs, the trails remain open. Note all the fallen leaves.  Already.

The last time I was here in May I found that a huge stone had fallen from the canyon wall. Though someone had been cleaning out the drainage ditches and cutting brush, the stone still sat where it had fallen. I think it would take a good size bulldozer to move it but then, move it where? The only way out of here is by one end or the other; there are no side trails.

Rocks aren’t the only things falling here; a large maple tree had fallen as well, but someone had cut it up. It seems odd that I see so many things that have fallen but I never see them fall. Maybe I should just count my blessings. That tree or the boulder could have easily killed a person.

The railroad used the stone blasted from the canyon to build retaining walls along parts of the trail. They’re beautifully built and they’ve held the hillside back for 150 years. Anyone who knows much about lichens would expect a wall like this one to be covered with them, but this entire place is remarkably almost lichen free.

Most of the trail is natural; just a very long trench cut through the bedrock of the hillside. It really must have been difficult to remove the snow from here in the winter so trains could get through. The canyon walls would have allowed just a few feet of space on either side of a train.

Many kinds of mosses, liverworts, ferns, flowering plants, and trees grow on these ledges, constantly watered by groundwater that seeps out of cracks in the stone. The scope of what you can find here is really amazing; I’ve seen things here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. At this time of year the lush green growth always reminds me of the Shangri la that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon.

Drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed catch all the seeping groundwater and transport it out of the canyon so the rail bed stays dry. The railroad built the rail bed by laying large, flat stones like Roman road builders once did. On top of that they put course gravel, and over the gravel they laid track ballast. Track ballast is the crushed stone on which the ties or sleepers were laid. If the ballast was thick enough it kept weeds from growing and helped with drainage. Judging by all of the plants that usually grow alongside the ditches the ballast is most likely gone now, or it has certainly thinned out. I knew that people had been working here because all of the shoulder high plants that normally grew alongside the ditches had been cut, but they’ll grow back.

8. Washed Out Trail

We had torrential storms this past summer which in certain instances dropped 4 inches or more of rain in less than 24 hours in places, and this was one of those places. This photo shows a 3 foot wide, 6 inch deep trench that rushing water cut down the center of the rail bed. There were 2 or 3 other places that had washed out as well, so somebody has a lot of work ahead of them. Luckily trucks can get in here, but I doubt anything bigger than a one ton dump truck would get through without destroying the rail bed. The only thing good about the washout was that it let me see how the railroad built the rail bed.

Green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) grow here and there on the walls and are bright orange and very hairy. They grow like small tufts of hair all over some rocks. I’m not sure what the algae / stone attraction is, but it only grows on certain stones and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  Algae do produce spores though, and they can produce them in high enough concentrations to actually color rainfall. Red, yellow, green, and black rain has been reported in various parts of the world.

I saw plenty of asters on this trip and some of them grew right out of the cracks in the stone walls of the canyon. Many plants and even trees grow on these walls, wherever they can gain a foothold.

In the winter huge columns of ice, some as big as tree trunks and 50 feet tall, grow here; fed by the constantly dripping groundwater. In places the groundwater carries a lot of minerals with it, and the above photo shows orange staining on the stone, probably caused by iron in the soil or stone. The minerals in the water also stain the ice columns in winter and you can find blue, green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and even black ice. It’s a magical, beautiful place when we have a cold winter.

The ledges soar overhead, up to 50 feet in places, and rock and ice climbers can often be found training here. I haven’t been able to talk to any of them to see what they think of the large boulder that fell, but I would think that it would make them a bit nervous. The shadows make the stone look very dark but it isn’t quite as dark as the camera thinks it is.

The sun lit up the yellow fall foliage of the black birches (Betula lenta) that grow at the top of the canyon walls. This tree is also called sweet birch and its numbers were once decimated because of its use as a source of oil of wintergreen. The bark looks a lot like cherry bark but chewing a twig is the best way to identify it; if it tastes like wintergreen then it is black birch. If not then it is most likely a cherry.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) grows well here in the moist soil, and even grows on the ledges. Since they have a root much like the corm on a gladiolus I’m not sure how they manage to grow on stone but they do. Though it is considered toxic Native Americans cooked and ate the roots, and this gave the plant the name Indian turnip. Jack in the pulpit is a native plant in the arum family similar to the Lords and Ladies plant found in the U.K.

The ripe fruit of a Jack in the pulpit is bright red when ripe. Deer love these berries and often come by and chomp off the top of the plant, but I don’t know if deer dare to come into this canyon. I’ve never seen any signs of them here. Each Jack in the pulpit berry starts out green and contains 3-5 seeds.

Where it hadn’t been cut jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) still bloomed. These blossoms dangle at the ends of long filament and sway in the slightest breath of a breeze, so it was tricky getting a shot of one here where the breezes almost always blow.

Many species of moss grow on the moist stone ledges. I think this example was cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cupressiforme,) also called sheet moss or Hypnum moss. It is one of the mosses that are often used in moss gardens.

My favorite liverwort is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) and they grow here on the stone ledges by the thousands. I was worried about them last year because many of them turned gray and looked like they might be dying, but now they’re back to their green color and looked to be good and healthy. Last year’s color change must have been a reaction to the drought. These plants need plenty of water.

Great scented liverwort is also called snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. The reason it looks so reptilian is because of the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surfaces. It is the only liverwort with this feature, so it is very easy to identify. They love growing over the drainage channels here with ground water dripping on them from above. They are very fussy about water quality and will only grow where the water is clean and pure.  When you crush a leaf of this liverwort you smell a clean spicy aroma that I always think would make an excellent air freshener. They’re very beautiful things and I wish I could see them every day.

Another pretty moss that grows on the ledges is the leafy common pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolia.) This small moss is a water lover that grows near waterfalls and streams on rock, wood, or soil. It’s very small though; what shows in this photo would fit on the face of a penny. Its tiny leaves are only one cell thick and in the right light they are translucent.

The trail goes on all the way to Keene and I always tell myself that someday I’m going to follow it all that way, but by the time I’ve reached the old lineman’s shack I’m usually ready to turn around and head back. By this time I’ve seen much and have taken hundreds of photos, so I don’t need any more of those.  I like to take a little time poking around the old shack and usually end up wondering how it is still standing, and if it will make it through another winter. It was built well, that’s for sure. It’s only supported by two walls and only has half a roof and half a floor now.

There is always an adventure waiting in the woods. ~Katelyn S. Bolds

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