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Posts Tagged ‘Orb Spiders’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great scented liverwort is like one of those plants I used to dream I’d bring back from far away places. It’s such a beautiful thing and it somehow manages to look both plant and animal at the same time. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and I saw lots of it.

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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