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Posts Tagged ‘Westmoreland Deep Cut’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

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