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Posts Tagged ‘Jack in the pulpit’

I saw hobblebushes blooming in the woods along the roadsides so I knew it was time to visit the Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene. It’s a place where I know I can get close to the hobblebushes and many other plants. I start off by following the old abandoned road that used to be the route to Concord, which is the state capitol, from Keene. The road was abandoned in the 1970s when the new Route 9 north was built, and nature has been doing its best to reclaim it ever since.

The old road is full of cracks, which are filled in immediately by green, growing life. This of course makes the cracks even wider so more plants can move in. Its a slow but inexorable process that will go on until the forest takes back what was carved out of it.

Cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) unfurled by one of the vernal pools found along the old road.

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grew near another pool. These pretty white flowered plants like wet feet so when you kneel for a photo you usually get wet knees. They have hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and small, bright white flowers. Their leaves are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown.

The “Foam” part of the name comes from the many stamens on the flowers, which give large colonies a kind of frothy look. Each flower has 5 white petals, 5 white sepals, and 10 stamens. Foam flowers are popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their foliage as the flowers. Native Americans used the leaves and roots medicinally as a mouthwash for mouth sores. The plant is also called “cool wort” because the leaves were once used on scalds and burns to relieve the pain.

New maple leaves are still wearing their bright colors.

I’ve seen this spot when all the green you see to the right was underwater, but the brook was tame on this day. Maybe a little higher than average but not too bad.

I’m surprised flooding hadn’t washed all of this away, or maybe it was flooding that carried it here. This is just upstream from where I was in the previous shot.

There were an amazing number of trees in the brook so it will take quite a flood to wash them downstream. I’d cut them up if I was in charge because “downstream” from here means right through the heart of Keene. There must be a thousand places further on where a mess like this could get hung up. Waiting until high summer when the water was at its lowest and then having two men wade in with a battery-operated chainsaw would be the way to go.

But I was glad I wasn’t in charge because clearing that log jam will be worse than pulling apart a beaver dam by a longshot. How lucky I was; all I had to do was keep walking and enjoying a beautiful day.

I stopped to see the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichens (Porpidia albocaerulescens) that live here. It always looks like someone has spilled jewels on the stone.

Not too far up the old road from the smoky eye boulder lichens are the hobblebushes, and that’s the amazing thing about this place; just walk a few steps and there is another beautiful thing to stop and see. This is why, though it is less than a mile’s walk to Beaver Brook Falls, it often takes me two hours or more. I don’t come here for exercise, I come for the beauty of the place.

And there is little that is more beautiful than the flowers of our native hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides). The large, sterile flowers around the perimeter are there just to attract insects to the smaller, fertile flowers. The outer flowers are delicate, and a strong wind or heavy rain can strip them from the flower head.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) were bright yellow among last year’s leaves. They like wet, sunny meadows and open woodlands and there are a lot of them here.

There were no flowers on them yet though, just buds. The plant is said to be important to a number of short-tongued insects that are able to easily reach the nectar in the small yellow flowers. Each flower will be only about an eighth of an inch long with five sepals, five petals, and five stamens.

There were lots of blue marsh violets (Viola cucullata) (I think) blooming along the roadsides on this day. The long flower stems held the flowers high above the leaves and I believe the blue marsh violet is the only one that does this.

Jack in the pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) still hadn’t unfurled their leaves but they had nice color on their spathes.

The old road goes uphill the entire way but it’s an easy climb and there are many interesting things to see along with all the plants and trees, like the old guard posts still guarding against accidents that will never happen. The electric lines seen here run through the area on their way to elsewhere. There are no houses along the road.

The disappearing stream that runs down the hillside had done just that. It was too bad because it can be beautiful in spring.

Here it was in March while there was still ice melting. The stream ran then.

There aren’t many places where you can get right down to the brook but there are two or three and this is one of them. All the stone along the embankment was put there to prevent washouts and it’s hard to walk on, so you have to be careful.

The stone didn’t prevent all washouts. This old culvert washed into the brook years ago. The brook slowly eats away at the road and in the end it will most likely win.

All the walking and hiking I’ve been doing has improved my legs and lungs so much I thought I could just skip down the embankment to see Beaver Brook Falls. It didn’t work out quite that way but I made it without breaking my neck. The amount of water going over the falls was perfect. There’s a huge stone that juts out right in the middle and when there is too little water it splits the falls in two, so the scene isn’t quite as photogenic in my opinion.

The only trouble was, I took the wrong trail down to the brook so I was even further away from the falls than this. I was glad I had a zoom lens. There used to be just one trail down to the brook but now somehow there are three, all looking equally worn. Since I took this one, I would have had to wade in the brook to get any closer. I wasn’t interested in getting wet but it could have been done. People used to swim here all the time, rocks and all.

This shot shows the climb back to the road, or half of it anyway. About half way up I leaned my back against a tree and took a photo to show what you’re up against if you decide to do this. The small trees kept me from getting too much forward momentum on the way down, and then they helped me climb back up. That big rock will slide right down the hill if you put too much weight on it but the others were pretty firm.

Just to the right, out of camera range in that previous photo, there was a colony of what must have been twenty trilliums or more. I saw them along the road all the way up and saw those I had missed on the way down. In fact I saw more trilliums here than I’ve ever seen in one place before, so if you live in the area and it is wildflowers you want to see, this is a great place to start looking. Those I’ve shown in this post are really just a small part of what can be found here.

There is a serene and settled majesty to woodland scenery that enters into the soul and delights and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations. ~Washington Irving.

Thanks for stopping in.

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On Mother’s Day I took a walk out on the rail trail in Westmoreland to see if the wild columbines were blooming. It was a little cool but otherwise it was a beautiful day. Just the kind of day you hope to have for a walk in the woods in spring. I was glad all the moms were going to see sunshine on their day, even though the forecast had called for clouds.

When I first came here there was a single red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) plant growing beside the trail but now I’m happy to say that I saw several of them. This one was just starting to open its flowers, which are hard to see in this shot because of the bright sunlight.

Two or three of the tiny, 1/8 inch flowers had just opened and weren’t showing any real color yet but I could see the form, which is made up of five petals which are called “petaloid lobes” and which curve sharply backwards. Five stamens will have white filaments and will be tipped with pale yellow anthers. The flower is completed by a center pistil with three tiny stigmata. Each flower, if pollinated, will become a bright red berry. The berries are loved by birds and disappear almost as soon as they ripen.

Lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) unfurled their fiddleheads here and there.

There were lots of new maple leaves in both red and green. I thought I even saw some orange ones but colorblindness won’t let me swear to it.

Beech trees were in all stages of growth. Some still had tight buds, some had unfurled their buds, and some had soft new leaves.

Some even had last year’s leaves still hanging on. Beech is such a beautiful tree, at all times of year.

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) leaves are a kind of a bronze-red when they first appear and it is at this stage that many people confuse it with poison ivy, probably because of the old saying “leaves of three, let it be.” That’s why anyone who spends any time in the woods should get to know the difference. It isn’t hard because in truth sarsaparilla looks nothing like poison ivy.

This photo from last year shows that poison ivy looks nothing like sarsaparilla in spring, or at any other time of year. The leaf shape is completely different, and so is the growth habit.

The kidney shaped seed leaves of jewelweed seedlings (Impatiens capensis) can fade now that the first set of scallop edged true leaves have appeared. I saw hundreds of seedlings, so the seeds must be very viable.

Canada mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense) were all along the trail, and some were budded like this one. Though native to North America the plant acts like an invasive and forms monocultures and also invades woodland gardens, where it is almost impossible to eradicate. It grows in the shade of the forest and it does very well there.

We’re almost there. Right around that corner.

And here were the ledges that the columbines and many other plants grow on. Once you start looking closely you realize that you’ve found a botanical motherlode.

And there were lots of columbine plants, more than I’ve ever seen here. They’ve spread from one end of the ledges almost to the other, and since they’re a very rare flower I was happy to see it.

But of all the columbines I saw on this day, all had buds and no open blossoms except two. One was far overhead and I couldn’t reach it, but the one in this photo was lower down, so by reaching up with the camera and “shooting blind” I was able to get a shot of this one so you could see what they look like. I’ll have to go back and get more photos of them when the plants that grow lower down decide to open their flowers.

And this was right overhead, so I didn’t dilly dally. Many large stones have fallen from these ledges since I’ve been coming here so I don’t spend much time close to them.

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is the other extremely rare plant that lives here, but rather than living on the ledges it lives at the base of them. I just showed the spring shoots in a recent blog and already, here is the flowering plant. Blue cohosh likes rich soil and is found on wooded slopes in hardwood forests. It is associated with oaks and maples and this area is almost entirely hardwood forest. This is the only place I’ve ever seen it.

Blue cohosh flowers, it’s easy for me to say, are unlike any others I’ve seen, with their striped sepals and knobby anthers. The first time I saw them I knew that I was seeing something rare and special. Sometimes when there are hundreds of the same flower blooming, like a violet for instance, I’ll pick one and look it over, but after spending 50+ years in the woods and finding these plants in just this place, I would never pick them.

Each of the yellow green striped sepals of the flower contains a nectar gland to attract insects. Six yellow stamens (sometimes fewer) form a ring around the center ovary and the true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. The word cohosh is believed to be Native Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit, so in this case the word blue refers to the fruit color, even though all parts of the plant including the leaves and stems have a bluish cast to them in the spring.

Here is a photo that I took a few years ago of the beautiful blue fruit which gives the plant its name. The berries are actually brown seeds with a fleshy blue coating that protects them, and it is the seeds are what are considered the plant’s true fruit, so the plant is a bit unusual. The naked seeds are also considered poisonous. The “bloom” on the fleshy coating is made up of waxy white crystals that cover the berries and reflect the light in a way that makes them appear lighter colored. Some describe them as “blueberries dipped in confectioner’s sugar”. I will happily walk out here again this fall just to see them.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) flowers often show before the leaves and not surprisingly, though the flowers were fully out on these two plants the leaves were just unfurling. The striped parts seen in this photo are the spathe of the flower, which covers the spadix. These plants grow both on the ledges and at the base of them.

Jack in the pulpit plants are in the arum family and have a spathe and a spadix. On the inside the spathe, which is a bract, is more brightly colored than on the outside, with purple and cream stripes. Jack, which is the flowering spike or spadix, looked purple in the bright sunlight but it usually looks black. It could be that purple is the true color. If pollinated green berries will grow along the spadix during summer, and in the fall, they will finally turn bright red when ripe. Deer love to come along and snatch them up when they ripen.

There are lots of herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) plants growing at the base of the ledges but they never seem to be blooming when I come here.

There is always a nice clump of red / purple trilliums here (Trillium erectum) so I wasn’t surprised to see them. What did surprise me were all the seedlings I saw along the base of the ledges. It’s a good spot for trilliums.

But as I said in my last post, it’s nearly time to say goodbye to trilliums, and this flower showed why. They’ve had a great year though. I’ve seen more of them this spring than I ever have, and that means even more seedlings in the future. I doubt they’ll ever be as common as dandelions but a few more wouldn’t hurt. Many people never see them at all.

The woods were ringed with a color so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a color at all. It was more the idea of a color – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts. ~Susanna Clarke

Thanks for stopping in. I hope all the moms out there had a great Mother’s Day.

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Last weekend I went looking for signs of spring again and this thin ice sign was one of those I found. Thin ice at this time of year is a good sign if you happen to be a spring lover. The town puts them up in fall as the ice starts to form, then takes them down for the winter and puts them up again in spring when it starts to thaw. It’s good to pay attention to them; there have been photos in the local newspaper of plow trucks sitting in water up to their windows after going through this ice.

The ice was pulling back from shore so you wouldn’t catch me skating on it.

The willows are really coming along now. The soft gray catkins could be seen everywhere on this day.

I’m not seeing any yellow in them yet though, so it will be maybe a week or two before they flower.

I did see lots of pinecone galls on the willows. This gall appears at the branch tips and is caused by a midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides) laying eggs on them. Once the eggs hatch the larva burrow into the branch tip and the plant reacts by forming a gall around them. They aren’t very big but are very noticeable at this time of year. Galls and the insects that cause them, and the reactions of the various plants they appear on is a fascinating subject but they always lead me to two questions: how and why?

Hazelnut catkins are continuing their spring color change over to gold from green. I usually see the tiny scarlet female flowers in April but I have a feeling they might come a little earlier this year.  

This might look like an old pile of leaves but it is actually a hellebore plant. Hellebores bloom quite early so I usually start watching them at about this time of year. Another name for them is Lenten rose, because they will often bloom during Lent.

Crocuses have appeared alongside what I think are reticulated iris, and they are growing fast. A week ago there was no sign of them. The warm weather and rain this week should give them and everything else a good boost.

Daffodils are on hold, just waiting for the silent signal. The bed they’re in needs some serious weeding.

Since these are not my gardens, I can’t be positive but I do know that hyacinths grow near the front of this bed. Unfortunately an animal had dug down and eaten many of them. I’ve seen chipmunks and squirrels but no skunks, racoons or possums yet, so I’m not sure what could have done it.

There was quite a mound of good-looking soil that had been dug up. There’s nothing like the smell of newly thawed soil in spring.

This bulb had been rejected so it might be a daffodil. Daffodils are poisonous and somehow, animals know it.

I was surprised to see tulips up. No buds yet though, just leaves.

I keep checking the trails, hoping the ice will have melted. It is melting but not very quickly. Hopefully after the warmth and rain this week they will finally be clear of ice. I’ll never forget this winter. It has been one of the iciest I can remember. Even trail reports on the radio are saying that you should bring spikes.

I went to see a Cornelian cherry to see if it had woken up yet and I was very happy to see some yellow inside the bud scales of that pea size bud on the left. It won’t be long before its small but pretty yellow flowers unfold. I’ve seen them as early as late March. Last Sunday it was 65 degrees, so we might see them in March again this year.

Magnolia buds are covered by a single hairy bud scale called a cap and when the bud inside the cap starts to swell in spring the bud scale will often split and fall off, but as can be seen here by the bare space under the bud scale, the bud seems to be pushing the cap up and off. I’ve never noticed this before, but maybe it happens regularly, I don’t know. In any event it signals that magnolia buds are beginning to stir.

I took a look at the big horse chestnut buds. They’re easy to see but not so easy to get a photo of because they’re up over my head. Beautiful flowers will appear out of these buds in mid to late May.

Since most people have probably never seen a red horse chestnut blossom (Aesculus × carnea,) here is a not very technically good photo of what they look like. The tree is a cross between the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum.) I’ve read that bees and hummingbirds love the beautiful red and yellow blossoms.

After visiting the horse chestnut, I thought I’d wander over to the big old red maple. There still wasn’t a lot going on in its buds but they bloom in March so it won’t be long. Maybe it will be a sudden awakening. Speaking of sudden awakenings, I heard the first red wing blackbird today. If that isn’t a sign of spring then I don’t know what is. Soon the spring peepers will add their trills to the chorus.

Johnny jump ups were still blooming, even though they had been covered by snow for a week. I might apply for a part time job at the local college. That’s where some of the beds you see in these photos are located and they’re so full of weeds I’m almost embarrassed to show them. Maybe they would welcome a part time weeder. This bed is full of spring bulbs so it should be weeded before they come up.

I went to see the skunk cabbages, hoping that the spathes had opened so I could get a shot of the spadix with its strange little flowers, but they weren’t quite ready. You can just see a crack opening on the lower rights side of the bulbous part of this spathe but it’s nowhere near open enough to get my lens in. Maybe next week. I’d better bring something to kneel on though because the swampy ground had thawed and water filled every footstep.

The spring blooming witch hazels were in full bloom and I wanted you to see this one because of the translucence of the petals. Having to get so close to them to get a photo meant that I was awash in their wonderful fragrance. I find it impossible to describe but other have likened it to fresh laundry just taken down from the clothes line.

This witch hazel couldn’t have bloomed any more than it was. It had nice color too.

I chose this photo so you could see the different stages of a witch hazel bloom. On the upper right the petals are just emerging, and below that they are about half way unfurled. Finally in the center the flowers have fully opened. I’ve discovered this year that this can happen very fast. There are 4 or 5 different varieties in this group and as I wandered among them taking photos by the time I got back to where I had started many more flowers had opened on that first shrub I looked at. This was in the space of maybe 15-25 minutes.

In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth.  ~John Milton

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The last time I visited the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland I mentioned in the resulting blog post the violets that grow here in spring, and several people’s ears pricked up. They said they’d like to see them so that’s what this visit is all about. I had been seeing lots of violets blooming in Keene so I felt confident that I’d see some here, but not in the part of the deep cut that you see above. I think of this as the “sterile” part of the canyon because few plants besides mosses grow there. The walls are close to 50 feet high in places I’ve been told by people who climb them, and though it is sunny in the photo it’s in deep shade for most of the day.

Instead we go south to where all the growth is.

And there is a lot of growth. Every surface, whether it is vertical or horizontal has something growing on it. When I was a boy I dreamed of being a plant explorer, travelling all over the world to find beautiful plants for botanic gardens, and one of the books I read back then was James Hilton’s Lost Horizons. I never became a plant hunter but I did find my own Shangri-La, right here in Westmoreland New Hampshire. The beauty and lushness found here are like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.

By the way, for those new to this blog; this is what the canyon looks like in winter. All of the dripping groundwater you hear at other times of the year becomes ice, and in February you wonder how anything could ever grow here.

But things do grow here, and if anything it seems like it must be the ice helping them do so well. Foamflowers for instance, grow as well or better here than I’ve ever seen them grow anywhere else.

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) are always beautiful no matter where they grow but the ones that grow here seem healthier and more robust.

The Jack in the pulpit flowers (Arisaema triphyllum) I’ve seen here get bigger than they are anywhere else I go, so I’d guess that they like all the extra water as well. I usually lift the hood of the striped spathe so I can see the spadix inside but this time I didn’t have to; a side view shows how Jack lives in his pulpit.

I’ve seen Jack in the pulpit plants reach waist high here while in other places they barely reach knee high. The leaves on this plant were huge and I wanted you to see them because they are sometimes mistaken for trillium leaves.

Here were two red trillium plants, also with huge leaves. If you compare them with the Jack in the pulpit leaves in the previous photo you’ll see that there are differences. The overall shape of the trillium plant from above is round while with Jack in the pulpit it is more triangular. The trillium leaves are more rounded as well, but the main difference is in how the trillium flower stalk rises out of the center where the three leaves meet. In a Jack in the pulpit the flower is on its own stalk that rises directly from the ground.

And here were the violets; thousands of them, doing better this year than I think I’ve ever seen. In years past I decided that they were marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) because the long flower stem (peduncle) gets the flowers high above the leaves. These violets aren’t shy; they shout here we are!

They’re very beautiful, even when they peek out of grasses and sedges. Though my color finding software sees lavender highlights here and there it tells me that most of these violets are cornflower blue.

Small waterfalls occasionally pour from the walls as they were on this day, and I think that’s why all of these plants can do so well here. The ice that forms here in winter is almost always colored in various colors and I think that is because this ground water is mineral rich. Those same minerals that color the ice are most likely taken up and used by all of these plants.

The tinkling, dripping sounds of water are constant no matter where in the canyon you may be.

All of that dripping, splashing water means that plants like violets can grow right on the stone. This shot shows how the flower stem on the marsh blue violet gets the flowers high above the leaves. If I understand what I’ve read correctly it is the only violet that does this. (And this is probably the only violet that can handle all of this water.)

Even dandelions, which have a tap root like a carrot, can grow on stone here. Note how wet the surrounding stone is. Even trees grow on stone here, but they usually fall before they get very old.

Kidney leaved buttercups (Ranunculus abortivus) grew here and there along the trail. They’re always a challenge to photograph because their wiry stems sprawl and move in the wind.

Each tiny flower is only about a quarter inch in diameter with five yellow petals and ten or more yellow stamens surrounding a shiny green center that resembles a raspberry in shape. This plant is also called little leaf buttercup or small flowered buttercup. Like other plants in the buttercup family it is toxic.

I saw a few groups of ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) here and I’ve got to try to remember they’re here because their spring fiddleheads look like no other that I know of and I’d like to come back next spring to get photos of them. Another name for this fern is the shuttlecock fern and that’s a good description, because that’s exactly the shape they have. Though I’ve read that they can reach seven feet tall under optimum conditions the examples I saw were about three and a half feet tall.

The leaf stalk of an ostrich fern is deeply grooved as seen here, and if you are going to forage for fern fiddleheads to eat you would do well to remember this. Other ferns like the interrupted fern and cinnamon fern have grooved leaf stalks but their grooves are much more shallow than these.

As this shot from 2015 shows. ostrich fern spring fiddleheads are smooth and bright, pea green. Even at this stage they have that deep groove in the stalks, and no wooly coating. They like to grow in shady places where the soil is consistently damp. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are considered a great delicacy by many and many restaurants are happy to pay premium prices for them in spring. I’ve always heard that ostrich fern is the only one of our native ferns that is safe to eat.

Unfortunately there was a lot of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) here. This plant is very invasive and can form large monocultures of nothing but garlic mustard. The plant was originally brought from Europe in the 1800s as an herb, and to be used for erosion control. Of course it immediately escaped and is now trying to take over the world. By the time native plants come up in spring garlic mustard has already grown enough to shade them out and that’s how it outcompetes our native species. It is edible in spring when young but increases in toxicity (Cyanide) as it ages. It has a taproot but it can be pulled, preferably before it sets seed. In the U.K. it is called Jack-by-the-hedge and we kind of wish it had stayed there. By the hedge, I mean.

I like the fern like leaves of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) which grows along the drainage channels here. 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. It isn’t the same as the cultivated chervil used to flavor soups and it shouldn’t be eaten. In many places it is called cow parsley and resembles many plants that are very poisonous, so it’s best to just admire it and let it be.

I realized when I was here that I’ve never shown you what happens when you exit the canyon, so here you are. You can just see the roofline of the old lineman’s shack behind those trees to the left.

And here is what’s left of the lineman’s shack. The front wall is leaning back quite severely now and that most likely means the ridgepole has snapped, so the old place can’t be long for this world. The ridgepole is what the rafters attach to and without it, it all comes tumbling down. I’ll be sorry to see that. I’ve been coming here for so many years it seems like an old friend.

I hope all of you violet lovers out there enjoyed seeing how they grow in nature, and the beauty of this place. This violet was my favorite. My color finding software tells me it’s steel blue.

The superstition still survives in widely scattered countries that to dream of the violet is good luck. ~Cora Linn Daniels

Thanks for stopping in.

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The appearance of little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia) tells me that it’s almost time to come out of the woods where the spring ephemerals bloom into the sunny meadows, where more summer wildflowers than you can count bloom. These little beauties will sometimes grow in a sunny clearing in the woods but more often than not I find them along the edges of the forest. They’re easy to pass off as “just another violet” at a glance so you’ve got to look closely. And there is no such thing as just another violet.

Each blossom is made up of five sepals and two petals. The two petals form a tube and two of the sepals form the little wings. The little whirligig at the end of the tube is part of the third sepal, which is mostly hidden. When a heavy enough insect lands on the fringe the third sepal, called the keel, drops down to create an entrance to the tube. Once the insect crawls in it finds the flower’s reproductive parts and gets dusted with pollen to carry off to another blossom. They’re beautiful little things and it’s easy to see why some mistake the flowers for orchids. Fringed polygalas are in the milkwort family and are also sometimes called flowering wintergreen and / or gaywings. The slightly hairy leaves were once used medicinally by some Native American tribes to heal sores.

You might have notice a whitish blur under the flower in that last shot. It was a little crab spider that dropped off the flower when I started taking photos. As is often the case I didn’t see it until it saw me and started moving. Crab spiders can change their color to match the color of the flower they’re on but I’ve read that it can take days for them to change.

Hawthorns (Crataegus) have also just come into bloom. There are over 100 species of native and cultivated hawthorns in the U.S. and they can be hard to identify, so I don’t try. The flowers usually have large plum colored anthers but I think I took this photo before they had matured. Hawthorn has been used to treat heart disease since the 1st century and the leaves and flowers are still used for that purpose today. There are antioxidant flavonoids in the plant that may help dilate blood vessels, improve blood flow, and protect blood vessels from damage. Native Americans used the plant’s long sharp thorns for fish hooks and for sewing. The wood is very hard and was used for tools and weapons.

I like the buds on hawthorns as much as I do the flowers.

Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias) is blooming. This plant is also called cemetery weed because it’s often found in them. It was introduced from Europe in the mid-1800s as an ornamental. Of course, it immediately escaped the gardens of the day and is now seen in just about any vacant lot or other area with poor, dry soil. This plant forms explosive seed pods that can fling its seeds several feet. Here it grew by a stream, which was a bit of a surprise.

Shy little nodding trilliums (Trillium cernuum) are the second of out three trilliums to bloom. Red trilliums are about done and painted trilliums will come along soon. Nodding trillium flowers open beneath the leaves almost like a mayapple and they can be very hard to see, even when you’re standing right over them.

When the buds form they are above the leaves but as they grow the flower stem (petiole) lengthens and bends, so when the flower finally opens it is facing the ground. At barely 6 inches from the ground there isn’t a lot of room for a camera so I hold my camera in one hand and with the other I very gently bend back the stem until I can see the flower. It doesn’t hurt the plant at all; they snap right back up.

My favorite thing about the nodding trillium blossom is its six big purple stamens but you’ve got to be quick to see them. This flower’s swept back petals means it was just about done blooming and they have just started. Nodding trillium is the northernmost trillium in North America, reaching far into northern Canada and Newfoundland. It is also called whip-poor-will flower because it blooms when the whip-poor-wills return. And that’s true; a friend heard the first whip-poor-will on the same day he saw the first nodding trillium.

Many plants are showing an abundance of bloom this year like I’ve never seen and creeping phlox is one of them. If you’re a flower lover this is your year for most of them.

Blueberries are blooming so well this year I doubt there would have been room for any more blossoms on this bush. The bears will eat well. Both low and highbush varieties are loaded with flowers.

I don’t usually “do” small yellow flowers because I have found that you could devote your entire life to them and still not identify them all, but I think this one is a common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex.) They’ve just opened this past week.

Dandelion is another plant that is having a fantastic year; I’ve never seen them bloom like this. My phone camera made these look like they had just come out of a flower shop.

My mother died before I was old enough to retain any memory of her but she planted a white lilac before she died, so now the flowers and their scent have become my memory of her. Whenever I see a white lilac she is there too, as she was on this day when I was taking photos of them. Once the lilacs have passed the cabbage roses, heavy with wonderful scent, will start to bloom. She also planted those in the yard before she died, so in fragrance she is with me all summer long. Her gifts and her memory are carried on the breeze.

The first iris of the season was dark purple with yellow beards. I’m hoping for native blue flag irises soon. They usually come along around the first of June before garden irises bloom, so this one might be an early one.

Magnolias are still blooming. There was no wind but you’d never know it by looking at this flower. The wind was in the bud.

I’ve never seen so many violas in one place as there are in this bed on the grounds of the local college. I’d say they’re having a very good year.

As I’ve said here before two of my great loves are history and botany, and they come together in the poet’s daffodil (Narcissus poeticus.) It is such an ancient plant that many believe it is the flower that the legend of Narcissus is based on, and it can be found in botanical texts from as early as 371 BC. It is one of the first cultivated daffodils and is hard to mistake for any other, with its red edged, yellow corona and pure white petals. Its scent is spicy and pleasing but it is said to be so powerfully fragrant that people can get sick from being in an enclosed room with it. It blooms later than other daffodils so I wait impatiently for it each spring. I’m guessing that it must be used to a Mediterranean climate since the antient Greeks knew it.

It’s already time to say goodbye to trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) even though it seems as if they just started blooming. They had a poor showing this year and I’m not sure if it was the early heat or the May cold or last summer’s drought, but hopefully they’ll be back to normal next year. I usually see many thousands of blossoms and this year I’m not even sure that I saw hundreds.

I think this is common chickweed (Stellaria media,) but chickweeds can be tricky. It was little; this blossom could easily hide behind a pea. I’ve read that chickweed is edible and is said to be far more nutritious than cultivated lettuce.

I believe that this is a plant in the mustard family called winter cress or yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) but it is very easy to confuse with our native common field mustard (Brassica rapa or Brassica campestris.)  If I’m right it 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. 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.

Heart leaved foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) have just started blossoming near shaded streams and on damp hillsides. These cheery plants usually form large colonies and are quite common in this area. There are also many hybrids available and they are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

Each foamflower stalk is made up of multiple tiny white flowers. The “foam” comes from their many anthers that make them look like they’re frothing. Or at least they did to the person who named them. They’re pretty little things by themselves but when you see large drifts of plants in the woods you don’t forget it right away.

I wasn’t sure if I’d see Jack in the pulpit blossoms (Arisaema triphyllum) this year. They seem a little late but here they are. In this shot the hood of the pulpit is pulled down over “Jack” and this is the way you will find them in the woods. They like sunny, damp, boggy places so when you get down to take photos you can expect wet knees.

Jack in the pulpit is in the arum family and has a spathe and a spadix much like another arum, skunk cabbage does. In this case the spathe is striped and beautiful on the inside as you can see if you gently lift the hood. And there is “Jack,” which is the spiky spadix. Though in this photo the spadix looks black it is actually plum purple in the right light. Later on in the fall it will be covered by bright red berries and if a deer doesn’t come along and eat them I’ll show them to you. 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 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.

By the way, when I’m done taking photos of Jack I always gently fold his hood back down to leave him the way I found him.

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

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I wanted to see if the wild columbines were blooming so on a recent sunny day I walked the rail trail up in Westmoreland to the ledges they grow on. There are lots of other wildflowers here as well so you always find something blooming along this trail in spring.

I was surprised to find coltsfoot still blooming. I haven’t seen any in Keene for two weeks.

I should say that I saw a single coltsfoot blossom; most looked like this.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) had started blooming, but the flowers hadn’t opened completely.

Each greenish white red elderberry flower is tiny at about 1/8 inch across, but has a lot going on. They have five petals which are called “petaloid lobes” and which curve sharply backwards. Five stamens have white filaments and are tipped with pale yellow anthers. The flower is completed by a center pistil with three tiny stigmata. If pollinated each flower will become a small, bright red berry. Though the plant is toxic Native Americans knew how to cook the berries to remove their toxicity. They are said to be very bitter unless prepared correctly. Birds love them and each year they disappear quickly.

False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) grew here and there and was already budded. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from this plant’s burning roots to treat headache and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

The tiny flowers will be part of a large terminal flower head and will become bright white. The berries will form quickly and will turn bright red but before they do they are speckled red and green for a time. The plant is also called treacle berry because the berries taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They’re rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative so moderation is called for.

True Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) also grew along the trail. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and it won’t be long before it blooms. It already had buds on it.

The Solomon’s seal flowers will dangle from the stem under the leaves and will be hard to see, so you have to look for them. They will eventually become small dark blue berries.

Ferns were yawning and stretching, happy to be awake and greening up once again.

Though the trail looks long in photos it doesn’t take that long to get to where the columbines grow.

Algae grew on the stone ledge you can see just to the right in that previous photo.

I believe it was spirogyra algae which always seems to have lots of bubbles. Looking at it is almost like being able to see through the skin of a frog. Spirogyra has common names that include water silk and mermaid’s tresses. It is described as a “filamentous charophyte green algae of the order Zygnematales.” I’ve read that they grow in nutrient rich places. They’re always interesting and they don’t feel slimy at all. They feel like cool water.

The trees are getting very green. All shades of green.

Some of that green came from the new leaves of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). The road seen far below is route 12 north. It lets you know how high up this rail trail is; this part of the rail bed was cut into the side of a steep hillside.

New red maple leaves lived up to their name and were tomato red. The same pigments that color them in the fall color them in the spring.

Here we are at the ledges. What is left of the hillside after the railroad cut its way through is home to a large variety of plants.

Spring shoots of Jack in the pulpit grew up out of the moss. If you know anything about Jack in the pulpit you know that it grows from a bulb like root called a corm, much like a gladiolus corm. That’s fine until you start wondering how such a root works on stone. I’ve also seen dandelions growing on these ledges and they have a long tap root. Again, how does that work on stone? There are lots of questions here that I can’t answer but that’s okay; nature knows what its doing.

When I first found this place a few years ago there was a single group of red trilliums (Trillium erectum) growing here. Now that small group is much larger and there re trilliums all along the base of the ledges so they’re obviously happy here.

They’re very pretty flowers but they won’t be with us much longer. Once the tree leaves come out that’s pretty much it for these plants.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) grows in abundance here. I’ve never seen so much of it in any other place. It is named after a French monk who lived in the year 1000 AD and is said to have cured many people’s illnesses with it. 

And then there they were, the wild columbine blossoms (Aquilegia canadensis) I haven’t seen since last year. They are beautiful things; well worth the hike. Each red and yellow blossom is about an inch and a half long and dances in the slightest breeze at the end of a long stalk. The Aquilegia part of the scientific name comes from the Latin Aquila, which means “eagle” and refers to the spurred petals that Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus thought resembled an eagle’s talons. Some think they resemble pigeons around a dish and the name Columbine comes from the Latin Columbinus, which means “pertaining to doves or pigeons.” It is said that Native American men rubbed the crushed seeds on themselves to be more attractive to women. Whether they did it for color or scent, I don’t know.

Wild columbine flowers have 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip, and forms a long, funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. The oval sepals are also red, and the anthers are bright yellow. When they grow on ledges some of them are up overhead, so you can see the nodding flowers in a way you never could if they were growing at ground level. 5 funnel shaped holes lead to nectar spurs and long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe these holes for nectar. Some say that these holes look like dovecotes, which is another reference to birds. We’re so very lucky to have such beautiful things in these woods.

This shot of a the back of a white garden columbine blossom that I took several years ago shows what I think is a good example of why columbines have always been associated with birds. As soon as I saw this shot I thought of five beautiful white swans with outstretched wings, come together to discuss whatever it is that swans discuss.

This shot is for those who have never seen how and where columbines grow naturally. When it rains all that moss soaks up water like a sponge and then releases it slowly, and I think that is why the columbines and all of the other plants do so well here.

The woods were ringed with a color so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a color at all. It was more the idea of a color – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts. ~Susanna Clarke

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Leaves on the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) means it’s time to say goodbye to this spring ephemeral. The flowers appear before the leaves, sometimes weeks before. Coltsfoot is said to be the earliest blooming wildflower in the northeast but there are many tree and shrub flowers that appear earlier, so I suppose “earliest” depends on what your definition of a wildflower is. In the past coltsfoot was thought to be good for the lungs and the dried leaves were often smoked as a remedy for asthma and coughs. It was also often used as a tobacco substitute, asthma or not. A native of Europe, it was brought over by early settlers who used it medicinally. This plant’s common name comes from the shape of the leaves, which are said to look like a colt’s hoof.

Seeing coltsfoot leaves means you should also see seed heads, and here they were. They look very different than a dandelion seed head; much more cottony. Coltsfoot plants have composite flowers, which is a larger flower head made up of many smaller flowers, in this case central disc florets and thin, radial, ray florets. If you turn clockwise at just about 11:30 you can see what a single tiny coltsfoot flower looks like.   

These hobblebush flowers had just opened and you can tell that from the yellow blush on each of the normally pure white flowers. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to bright red before ripening to a deep purple color. The outer infertile flowers always seem to open before the fertile ones. Hobblebushes are one of our most beautiful native shrubs.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is up and already budded. Often I’m just as surprised by what I’ve missed than what I’ve seen and, though I’ve seen this plant thousands of times, I never knew how quickly the flower buds appeared until I saw these. 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.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is a tiny flower that you often have to sprawl on the ground to get a photo of, but the shiny 3 lobed leaves make this one easy to spot. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. This plant usually grows in undisturbed soil that is on the moist side. I often find it near swamps.

I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens of goldthread. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the golden true petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a striking spring wildflower. It is also called bog onion or Indian turnip. 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.  The root, which is a corm, may be eaten if it is cooked thoroughly and prepared correctly but is toxic when uncooked. 

Pussytoes (Antennaria) are popping up everywhere. There are close to 45 species of pussytoes, which makes identifying them more difficult.  Pussytoes are a favorite of many butterfly species. Another common name for the plant is everlasting. They like to grow in dry, sandy or rocky soil.

The flowers of the pussytoes plant are said to look like cat’s paws but I’ve never thought so. Someone also thought the stamens on a pussytoes flower looked like butterfly antennae and that’s where the Antennaria part of the scientific name came from. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat coughs, fevers, bruises, and inflammations.

I’m seeing more bluets (Houstonia caerulea) this year than I ever have and, though I often show it here I realized that I’ve never mentioned how what looks like a four petaled flower is actually a single, tubular, four lobed “petal.” However you describe them they’re pretty little things.

Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have just started blooming and because of the cold, cloudy weather finding the flowers open has been a real treasure hunt. These low growing plants often grow in large colonies and the flowers can be pink or white. They have 5 (usually) white sepals and no petals. Because of the way they tremble in the slightest breeze anemones are also called wind flowers. From seed to flower takes about 4-5 years. An unusual habit is how the plants completely disappear in summer.

I gave up on showing most small yellow flowers on this blog long ago because many look so much alike that it can take quite a long time to identify them, but this one grew all alone in a big field  so I took its photo. I think it’s a common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) but it could also be the European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans.) They’ve just opened this past week.

Though I’ve never seen it in a forest creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is native to the forests of North America and has just started blooming. Another plant called creeping phlox is Phlox stolonifera, native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. One way to tell the two plants apart is to look for the darker band of color around the center of each flower; only Phlox subulata has it. Creeping phlox is also called moss phlox or moss pinks. April’s “pink moon” got that name from the way the “moss pinks” bloom in that month. It’s a plant that loves growing in lawns as it is here and luckily it doesn’t seem to mind being mowed. Even so many people wait until it’s done blooming to do their first spring mowing.

That darker band around the center of the flower tells me this is Phlox subulata. Most people see the beauty in the mass display but not the individuals responsible for it in creeping phlox.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) flowers are so small that even a cluster of them is hardly bigger than a nickel, and the entire plant could easily fit into a teacup. One interesting thing about this little plant is how some plants have only male flowers while others have perfect flowers with both male and female parts. Each plant can also change its gender from year to year. This photo also shows where the trifolius part of the scientific name comes from. Three to five leaflets each make up the whorl of three compound leaves. Dwarf ginseng doesn’t like disturbed ground and is usually found in old, untouched hardwood forests. It is on the rare side here and I only know of two places to find it. This is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine.

What is most unusual about this particular plant is how the flower head is misshapen. Usually the flower heads form a near perfect globe but I saw several plants on this day with out-of-round flower heads. Each flower is about 1/8 inch across, with five white petals. The three stamens on these flowers tell me they were perfect, with both male and female parts. Nothing is known about the insects that pollinate them but since I have found seed capsules on these plants something does.

We have a peach tree at work that has just come into bloom, quite early I think. This tree grows peaches but they’re more seed than fruit and they fall from the tree uneaten. Peach trees and their buds are very tender and do not like cold but peaches are grown in southern New Hampshire where there are a few pick your own peach orchards.

For years I’ve heard that flies are drawn to red trilliums (Trillium erectum) because of the carrion scented flowers and finally, here was a small fly on one.  It’s there on the left side of the bottom petal. This plant is also called stinking Benjamin and is said to be pollinated by flies as well.

I went back to the ledges in Westmoreland on a windy, snowy day to see the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming and thankfully they were. I was afraid they might have all died from frost bite but they were all unharmed, so I think maybe they aren’t quite as delicate as they appear.

I always gently bend a stem down onto the soft moss so I can get a shot looking into a blossom for those who have never seen what they look like. Columbines are all about the number 5. Each blossom has 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip and forms a long funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe the holes for nectar. The oval sepals are also red and the anthers are bright yellow. All together it makes for a very beautiful flower and I was happy to see them again.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

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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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It was another of those hot, humid July days last Sunday so I decided to see if the air conditioner was running up in the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It was, and the relief was immediate. This man-made canyon creates its own breeze and the air blowing over the moist canyon walls usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is “out there” in the world. It was wonderful to stand there and be cooled but taking photos was a chore because it was very dark due to all the overhanging trees. I had to use the flash to get this photo, which is the mediocre best of a poor lot. But it does show you what I’m talking about and I guess that’s the point.

The railroad used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the bedrock in the previous photo to build walls, and as a dry stone wall builder myself I can say that they’re impressive. This example is a massive retaining wall, built to keep the hillside from flowing onto the rail bed. You can’t tell from the photo but it tilts back into the hillside at about 10 degrees, just as any good retaining wall should. It’s probably also much thicker at the base than at the top. Not quite Mayan joints but close enough for me; these walls have stood without losing a stone for over 150 years.

I stopped to look at what I thought were intermediate wood ferns (Dryopteris intermedia.)

A look at the back of the leaf confirmed that they were indeed intermediate wood ferns. The tiny spore bearing sori are part way between the central vein and the outer edges of the pinnules. A pinnule in botanical terms is a secondary division of a pinnate leaf, but I usually just think of them as leaflets and in my own mind don’t pay much attention to the fancy (but correct) terminology. It just doesn’t seem as important as it once did. The beauty of it all is enough these days.

And I saw plenty of beauty here, like these fern like leaves of wild chervil, 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.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) had a visitor so I didn’t want to intrude. There are an amazing amount of insects here.

What I think was a cabbage white moth rested on a leaf in a shaft of sunlight. Ancient superstition said that a white moth embodied the soul of a loved one. This came from the ancient belief that the night is a dwelling place for souls and it is also the realm of the moth.

In winter this place is like a frozen Arctic wasteland but in summer it becomes a lush paradise with an incredible variety of species growing on every square inch of ground.

Plants, mosses, liverworts, fungi, and algae all grow on the stone walls of the canyon and add to the lushness. In summer this place reminds me of the Shangri-La described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon. For someone who dreamed of exploring the Amazon Jungle as a boy, it’s the next best thing.

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.

The algae are surprisingly hairy and in some cases can produce enough spores to color the rain. When you hear of a red, black, or green rain falling algae spores are almost always the reason why. I’ve never seen these examples producing spores but then I wonder if I’d even know that they were doing so. The spores must be microscopic. Everything you see here would fit on a penny with room to spare.

Much of the growth along the side of the trail is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis.) Jewelweed doesn’t mind shade and many thousands of plants grow here.

Out of all the many thousands of jewelweed plants I saw just one with a flower, and this is it. The white pollen at the top of the opening tells us that this is a male flower. Soon there will be many thousands of flowers, both male and female.

There are also many flowering raspberry plants growing here and many were still blooming. Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) is in the rose family and it isn’t hard to tell by the flowers, but the big light gathering leaves look more like a maple than a rose. The big leaves give it a certain tolerance for low light, and that’s how it can grow here so well. The fruit looks like a giant raspberry, 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. I keep forgetting to try it.

Other berries found here include those of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum.) These berries turn bright red but before they do they are speckled red and green for a time. The plant is also called treacle berry because the berries taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They’re rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative so moderation is called for. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from burning roots to treat headache and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

The railroad dug drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed and because the groundwater constantly seeps through the stone the ditches always have water in them, no matter how hot or dry it has been. I always wear rubber boots when I come here so I can walk in them and get closer to the canyon walls when I need to. I have to be quick though because stones of all sizes fall from the walls. For the first time I actually heard one fall on this day. It must have been small because it made a clacking sound. Thankfully it didn’t fall near me.

One of the reasons I like to walk in the drainage ditches is because greater scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow on the stone and I like to see them up close. Two winters ago I saw an alarming amount of them turn an ashy gray and they appeared to have died, but since then the many colonies seem to have bounced back. 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.

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.

In this photo you can see how wet the stones are from the ever dripping groundwater. All that water means that many plants with tap roots or extensive root systems like dandelions and even shrubs and trees can grow in the thin soil that is found on horizontal surfaces. This photo shows a Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) that has grown on the stone and fallen over. Though it’s growing on stone it’s perfectly healthy and even has produced berries. Jack in the pulpits have corms for roots. A corm is a kind of flattened bulb and other plants like crocus and gladiolus grow from them.

I saw many Jack in the pulpits here and most had berries that hadn’t ripened yet. When ripe these berries will be bright red and shiny like they’ve been lacquered. Deer love them and will chomp off the entire stalk of berries when they can. That’s why it’s so hard to show you a photo of ripe Jack in the pulpit berries.

I finally reached my turn around spot, which is the old lineman’s shack at one end of the deep cut canyon. I usually dawdle here for a while, marveling at how a building that has so many missing pieces can still stand. So many boards have been taken from it there isn’t much left, but so far it still makes it through our snowy winters. It fits the very definition of well built, but that’s how they did things in those days.

This is where the planks from the lineman’s shack end up; as bridges across the drainage ditches. They do come in handy but I’d still rather see them on the lineman’s shack.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long.
~John Moffitt

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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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