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Posts Tagged ‘Native Columbine’

On Easter Sunday I thought, since it was such a beautiful day, that I’d head up to Westmoreland to see if I could find some of the beautiful blue spring shoots of the blue cohosh plant that grows here. I found them last year but I was about two weeks late because they had already started turning green.

Right off I saw a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) with flower buds. This was a surprise since the others I’ve seen haven’t even broken bud yet. Had I been earlier the finger like leaves would have been deep purple. The purple flower buds will quickly turn green before blooming into a head of small, white flowers, and if pollinated they will become bright red berries.

I saw lots of railroad artifacts here on this day, including this old signal base.

I was shocked to find the buds of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) showing. I think this is the earliest I’ve seen this happen. As the buds grow they will become beautifully colored in pink and orange.

There are lots of beech trees up here but the buds didn’t show any sign of swelling or lengthening. They will become one of the most beautiful things found in a spring forest when the buds break and the leaves start to show. It won’t be long!

Last year’s beech leaves have turned white and become thinner than paper, and the wind easily strips them from the branches at this stage. There are lots of theories about why beech leaves keep their leaves all winter, including to discourage deer from eating their buds, but nobody really knows for sure.

This pile of old railroad ties brought back memories. I grew up just a few yards from railroad tracks and seeing all the rails and ties torn up after the trains stopped running hit me almost like a death in the family would have. For many years I didn’t go near a rail trail but then, after some gentle prodding by an old friend, I started walking them. I’ve been glad ever since that they are here to enjoy; they’re much easier to hike than the tracks were.

I saw a tie plate lying beside the trail.

Someone had found an old rail anchor and placed it on a stone. Rail anchors were used, as you would guess, to keep the rails from moving. Eight were used on each 39 foot length of track but their numbers were increased as the grade steepened. Four of them in original as found condition will cost you $36.00 online.

There are a few old box culverts out here, still doing their job of keeping streams from washing the railbed away. This stream had dried up but I think it only runs in heavy rains or when the snow melts.

I was a little apprehensive when I reached this point because this is very near where I met up with the biggest bear I ever want to meet in the woods. That happened a couple of years ago on just about this date but on this day the bear had apparently gone over the mountain.

In case you missed it the first time, here is the bear I saw that day. It was big and it just stared, and that was a bit unnerving. Thankfully it let me leave and didn’t follow. I doubt that I’ll ever forget it.

Grapevines were hanging on to any branch they could grab. This is how they climb trees to get into the crown where there is more sunshine.

I was getting close to where the cohosh grows when I stopped to take this shot. There was bright sunshine when I started out but high thin clouds had made the light flat and strange by this time.

Finally I reached the ledges, cut through the hillside by the railroad, and the mosses glowed.

Marks from the old steam drills can be seen here and there. These holes would have been filled with black powder. You basically lit the fuse and ran, and then you cleaned up all the blasted rock.

I was surprised to find icicles on the ledges but it had been a cold night. They were falling fast after a the sun reached them though, so I had to make sure there were none above me when I got close to the ledges. You can just see a wild columbine to the left of the icicle, and that’s why I wanted to get close to the ledges.

I’m beginning to wonder if they aren’t evergreen. I used Google lens on this plant to see if it could identify it and it came back with Aquilegia canadensis, which of course is correct.

Unfortunately it couldn’t identify this moss that you see covering the ledges because it is so tiny I couldn’t get a shot of it with my phone. I’m still looking through my moss books for it. It forms huge mats here on the stones.

I tried Google lens on this fern and it came back with evergreen woodfern (Dryopteris intermedia), which I think is correct.

Its stalk (stipe) was very scaly and I was surprised that I had never noticed this. I’ve seen scales on lady ferns but there are actually three ferns with scales; spinulose ferns also have them. I haven’t seen any fern fiddleheads yet.

I never did find the blue cohosh but trying to remember where a one inch tall shoot once was in such a large area can be difficult, even though I recognized the stone and log it had been growing near. I’m sure I’ll see the plant with its leaves when I come back to see the wild columbines blooming in early May. Purple trillium, Jack in the pulpit, herb Robert, and many other plants also grow here.

Baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) lit up a bit of ledge. I can’t think of another moss with so many spore capsules. They start off straight up and pointed like toothpicks and then begin to swell and turn downward. I have it growing in my yard and it’s cheering to see how it glows in the afternoon sunshine.

Cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) reminded me of little Miss Muffet’s tuffet. This moss can appear silvery, white, bluish green or grayish green but it always forms a thick cushion and stands out from the mosses that might surround it. It likes plenty of water and shade and grows on rotting logs or on stone when there is enough soil. It is probably the easiest of all the mosses to identify.

How soft and sweet the breeze was, and how warm the sun. I could easily imagine it being an early summer day but anyone who has grown up in New Hampshire knows what a changeable month April can be, and he knows what might seem a soft caress one day could quite likely seem a hard slap the next. Best not to be daydreaming about the coming summer I reminded myself, there was plenty to love about this day.

Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” –David Quammen

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Westmoreland lies north of Keene and the soil there is lime rich in certain places which means that you can see plants there that won’t grow in the more acidic soil of Keene, so last Sunday off I went down one of my favorite rail trails. I used to try to ride my bike out here but the gravel of the trail is very soft and I had such a time getting through it that I ended up walking the bike for much of the way anyhow, so now I just walk it. Though it was cloudy it was a great day for hiking with all of the beautiful spring green and singing birds.

This maple was that green that only happens in spring; kind of a yellow green, I guess you’d call it.

Though it doesn’t mind acidic soil red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) does well here in the more alkaline soil.  There were several plants which were flowering well with panicles of whitish flowers growing from the axils of the upper leaves.

Each greenish white flower is about 1/8″ across. They have 5 petals (petaloid lobes) that curve backwards sharply. The flower’s 5 stamens have white filaments and are tipped with pale yellow anthers. There is also a pistil with 3 small stigmata. If pollinated each flower will become a small bright red berry.  Though the plant is said to be toxic many Native American tribes steamed, dried and ate the berries. They are said to be very bitter unless prepared correctly.

There are plenty of reminders of exactly where you are out here, like this old signal base.

When the rails were torn up the railroad left all the ties stacked up along the railbed. People came and took what they wanted but there are still plenty to be seen, slowly rotting into the soil.

The boulder in the previous photo had a golf ball size hole in it, probably made by a steam drill so it could be blasted apart when they were laying the rails. For some reason they decided not to blast it.

Almost there; the dark circle in the distance marks the end of one leg of this journey.

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) wears bronze for its new spring coat, but its leaves will green up quickly. Wild sarsaparilla grows all through our forests and is a common sight. The plant sets flower buds quickly just as its leaflets have unfurled, and often before they’ve changed from their early deep bronze to green. In botanical terms the “leaves” are actually one leaf with a whorl of 3 compound leaves, which have groups of 3-7 leaflets. People sometimes confuse the plant with poison ivy before the flowers appear because of the “leaves of three” as in leaves of three, let them be. One easy way to tell the difference is by looking for a woody stem; poison ivy has one but this plant does not.

Wild sarsaparilla always starts out with its three compound leaves held vertically and clasping at the very top.

I was surprised to see logging going on in this part of the forest, but not completely. There are many hardwoods here like beech, oak and maple and very few conifers. Hardwood always brings more at the mill.

A logging road had to be built to get to the section of forest to be logged, so huge boulders were bulldozed into a place that needed a retaining wall. These stones are new, meaning they were just dug or cut. You can tell by how clean they are, and by their color. Most stones will turn gray in just a few years.

Here we are at the man made canyon that showed as a dark circle in a previous photo. There are a few of these along this section of trail, and they were all blasted out of the bedrock almost 150 years ago for the Cheshire Railroad.

I don’t know what it is that draws them here, but many interesting plants not easily seen in other places grow on these ledges.

Purple or red trillium (Trillium erectum) grows here in fair numbers. Each flower averages about as big as a quarter, or about an inch across.

Trilliums are all about the number three. Even the name trillium comes from the Latin tres, meaning three. On the purple trillium the three green sepals just are behind the three red petals. Once they open the flowers often nod under the three leaves (actually bracts,) and are mostly hidden from view for a short time before finally standing erect above the leaves. Inside the flower are six stamens and three stigmas. If flies pollinate the flower a three chambered, red fruit will grow.

False Solomon’s seal grows well here. Though it’s too early for their June bloom time the plants were budded. In about three weeks they should have small white, star shaped flowers in a branching cluster (raceme) at the end of their stems. The blossoms will give way to small but beautiful reddish and tan speckled berries that provide food for many birds and other wildlife.

The wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) are what I came here to see and as usual they stole the show. They like to grow on partially shaded rocky slopes so this area is perfect for them. How they got here is anyone’s guess but their numbers have been steadily increasing since I first found them. The rich alkaline soil is very unusual in this part of New Hampshire and many rare plants are known to grow in this area. The trick is in finding them; though I’ve spent 50 years walking through these woods this is the only place I’ve ever seen wild columbine.

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.

I couldn’t stop clicking the shutter, always hoping for a better shot. The wind was blowing through the canyon so I was sure every photo would be blurred. There have been years I’ve had to come back three or four times for that very reason.

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.

In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”
~Robin Wall Kimmerer

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1. Cherry Trees

Flowers are everywhere you look now, which makes my job a lot easier. Until I have to choose which ones to post on this blog, that is. Right now I have more photos than I do space to put them.

2. Cherry

Those are cherry blossoms high in the trees in that first photo and this is a closer look at them. New Hampshire has four native cherry trees: black cherry (Prunus serotina), choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), and wild American plum (Prunus americana).  I’ve given up trying to tell them apart and just enjoy their flowers all along the roadsides. They bloom at the same times as apples and hawthorns, so it can be quite a show.

3. Hobblebushes

Three miles down an old rail trail that runs alongside the Ashuelot River hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) blossom on the sun washed river banks. Every time that I see a scene like this I can imagine early settlers traveling down this river in a canoe and gasping at sights like this. Who wouldn’t have wanted to live in the Eden that they found here?

4. Hobblebush

Hobblebush is one of our most beautiful native viburnums. Its flower heads are about as big as your hand and are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and larger, sterile flowers around the outer edge of what is technically a corymb, which is just a fancy word for a flat topped, usually disc shaped flower head. It comes from the Latin corymbus, which means a cluster of fruit or flowers.  All flowers in the cluster have 5 petals. The large sterile flowers do the work of attracting insects and that’s why so many viburnums have this kind of arrangement. It seems to work well, because I see plenty of fruit on them later in the summer.

5. Wild Columbines

Another walk down a different rail trail led me to the only place I know of where our native eastern red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) grow on mossy ledges. Its love of rocky places gives it the common name rock-lily. The flowers have yellow petals with red spurs and sepals and are pollinated by hummingbirds. It’s one of our most delicate and beautiful wildflowers. An interesting fact about this columbine is how it contains a cyanogenic glycoside which releases hydrogen cyanide when the plant is damaged, meaning it is quite toxic. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in several ways, including as an anti-itch balm for the poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) rash.

6. Dwarf Ginseng

I wanted to show you how small dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) really is so I put a quarter in front of a few. For those not familiar with the size of quarter, it’s about an inch in diameter. Each flower head is no bigger than a nickel (0.835 in). This photo shows where the trifolius part of the scientific name comes from; three 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 and it should never be picked.

7. Foamflowers

Heartleaf foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) like damp soil so I always find them near streams and other wet places, usually growing in large colonies. This plant is a good example of how wildflowers become garden flowers. People like this plant enough to create a demand for it so nurserymen oblige by collecting its seed and growing it for sale, and plant breeders have created many hybrid varieties. It’s a cheery little plant that always seems as happy as I am to see in spring.

8. Foamflowers

Each foamflower stalk is made up of multiple tiny white flowers. 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.

9. Wild Ginger

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is an early bloomer and should have been in my last flower post but I forgot to put it in. These bloomed right around May first this year, but I’ve seen them earlier. This year most of the brownish flowers were lying right on the ground. Probably because they are at ground level scientists thought for years that these flowers were pollinated by flies or fungus gnats, but several studies have shown that they are self-pollinated.

10. Wild Ginger Flower

A close up of a wild ginger flower. This flower has no petals; it is made up of 3 triangular shaped calyx lobes that curl backwards. You might think, because of its meat-like color, that flies would happily visit this flower and they do occasionally, but they have little to nothing to do with the plant’s pollination. It is thought they crawl into the flower simply to get warm. In this photo you can see that the flower was just starting to shed pollen.

11. Lowbush Blueberry

Lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) and highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are blooming well this year and that means we’ll probably see a bountiful crop of berries, provided we don’t have a late frost. Blueberries are one of only three fruits native to North America. The other two are cranberries and concord grapes. Native Americans called blueberries “star berries” and used the plant medicinally, spiritually, and of course as a food. One of their favorites was a pudding made with dried blueberries and cornmeal.

12. Forget Me Not

The name “forget me not” (Myosotis) comes from the original German “Vergissmeinnicht” and the language of flowers in 15th century Germany encouraged folks to wear them so that they wouldn’t be forgotten by their loved ones. Mozart wrote a song about the flowers and Franz von Schober wrote a poem about them. It seems that the plant has always been associated with romance or remembrance; Henry IV had forget me nots as his symbol during his exile in 1398, probably so his subjects would remember him. Surely they must have; he was only gone for a year. Only Myosotis scorpioides, native to Europe and Asia, is called the true forget me not. The plant was introduced into North America, most likely by early European settlers, and now grows in 40 of the lower 48 states. In some states it is considered a noxious weed though I can’t for the life of me understand why. I hardly ever see it.

13. Forsythia-2

One of the spring flowers we’ll be saying goodbye to soon is the forsythia. I liked the way this one spilled over an old stone wall. It is a view that’s very common in New England but still beautiful.

14. Ground Ivy

In a ground ivy blossom (Glechoma hederacea) five petals are fused together to form a tube. The lowest and largest petal, which is actually two petals fused together, serves as a landing area for insects, complete with tiny hairs for them to hang onto. The darker spots are nectar guides for them to follow into the tube. The pistil’s forked style can be seen poking out at the top under one of the three separate petals. It’s in a perfect position to brush the back of a hungry bee. This flower is all about continuation of the species, and judging by the many thousands that I see its method is perfection. It’s another invader, introduced into North America as an ornamental or medicinal plant as early as the 1800s, when it immediately began taking over the continent. But nobody seems to mind.

15. Bleeding Heart

Wildflowers aren’t the only flowers that are beautiful. I found this bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) in a local park. This plant gets its common name from its heart shaped blossoms, each with a drop of “blood” at their bottoms. The best example of that in this photo is over on the far left.

16. Poet's Daffodil

The poet’s daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) can be found in botanical texts from as early as 371 BC., and is believed to be the flower that the legend of Narcissus is based on. The Roman poet Virgil wrote of a narcissus blossom that sounds just like Narcissus poeticus. The flower 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 flowers are very fragrant, with a scent so powerful it is said that a closed room full of flowers has made people sick. I like it because of its historical baggage; it always makes me think of ancient Rome and Greece, where toga wearing poets admired its beauty. It has naturalized throughout this area and can be found in unmown fields, and it’s still just as beautiful today as it was then, over 2,000 years ago.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

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1. Trail

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my travels along the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland, New Hampshire where I go to see liverworts. For a change I decided to follow the trail in the other direction, just to see what was out there. This post is made up of photos that were taken on four different trips to this place.

2. Cliff Face

After walking for a while you come upon soaring ledges. The minute I saw this stone I knew there was something different about this place because the stone is light colored. There is obviously a lot of feldspar here. If you see light colored, pinkish stone in this part of the state it is usually the mineral feldspar that you’re seeing. Feldspars can be found in sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rock. Here we often find pure feldspar seams in granite but rarely entire hillsides of it.

3. Trillium Colony

The purple trilliums (Trillium erectum) along the canyon floor were a good sign that I’d probably find other wildflowers here.

4. Possible Rattlesnake Fern

I’ve been trying to identify this fern for over a year and I think I’ve finally settled on rattlesnake fern (Botrypus viginianus), but that may change as I watch it grow. Rattlesnake fern’s common name, like other plants with rattlesnake in their names, comes from the belief that it grew where there were rattlesnakes. It’s supposed to be very common and appears in every state in the continental U.S. and most of Canada, but I’ve never seen it.

5. Mineral Deposits on Stone

I thought this streak of bright white on the stone was some type of lichen but it was caused by mineral deposits that easily wiped away like chalk dust. The bedrock in this part of the state is said to be calcium rich and I’m assuming calcium deposits were what I was seeing.

6. Jack in the Pulpit Closed

Jack in the pulpit plants (Arisaema triphyllum) were everywhere, including on the cliff faces. I’ve never seen them growing on stone and it seems odd, because the root is a bulb-like corm. You wouldn’t think it would have enough room to grow to any size on stone, but since these ledges were cut the mid-1800s there is probably plenty of organic matter built up on the horizontal surfaces. Mosses also grew as thick as I’ve ever seen them.

7. Jack in the Pulpit Open

I always like to lift the top of the spathe to see how Jack the spadix is doing. Down inside the spathe is where the fruit forms on the spadix.  I think a similar plant in the U.K. is called “Lords and ladies.”

8. Birch Bark Lottery Ticket

I started to get perturbed about this until I realized that Native Americans probably wrote hieroglyphs on birch bark with charcoal.

If you’re the one who wrote this note and happen to be reading this, I’d appreciate nothing larger than 50 dollar bills. 200 of them will be fine.

9. Native Columbine

Actually, I’m far more interested in these than I am money. I’ve been searching for many years for our native wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and here an entire colony of plants was growing the whole time. The rich alkaline soil is very unusual in this part of New Hampshire and many rare plants are known to grow in this area. The trick is in finding them. Since it has only taken me since boyhood to find native columbine, maybe now I’ll move on to the showy orchis, which is also said to grow in the area.

 10. Native Columbine Blossom

Seeing something so rare and beautiful in its native habitat for the first time made all the years of searching well worth the effort. I probably spent five or six hours total in this spot enjoying and photographing them, and searching for other rarely seen plants.

According to Wikipedia the genus name Aquilegia is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because the shape of the flower petals are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. The common name “columbine” comes from the Latin for “dove”, due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together.

11. Trail

These woods were alive with birdsong and seemed to shout spring. Walking here reminded me why this is my favorite time of year.

Perchance we may meet on woodland trails where drifts of trilliums and singing robins still greet the spring.” ~Don Jacobs

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