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Posts Tagged ‘Westmoreland Rail Trail’

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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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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I’d been almost everywhere I knew of where coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) grow and hadn’t seen a single one, so last Sunday I decided to visit the last place I knew of to find them; the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland. I don’t like going there at this time of year because this is when all the ice that has accumulated through winter starts melting, and when it starts melting it starts falling, and this can be a dangerous place to be when tree size pieces of ice come crashing down.

There was a lot more ice than I expected and it was rotten, which means it has probably released its hold on the stone and could come down at any time.

3. Falling Water

Melt water ran off the stone walls in gushing streams.

4. Trail

I decided to get out of the deepest, northern part of the canyon and head south where the coltsfoot plants grow.

5. Columbine Seedlings

This rail trail includes the ledges where the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) grow, so I thought I’d see what was happening there as well. I saw lots of columbine seedlings but still no blue cohosh shoots.

6. Red Elderberry Buds

I also got to see some red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) opening. They always open with tiny purple fingers like those seen here. It won’t be long before this plant is covered with bright red berries. The birds love them so much and eat them so fast it’s almost impossible to get a photo of them. I think I’ve gotten just one photo of red elderberry fruit in the 8 years I’ve done this blog.

7. Turkey Tail

I saw a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) wearing colors that I don’t often see. I’ve been seeing a lot of blue ones this year so this one was a pleasant surprise.

8. Unknown

I also found this chunk of blue something. It’s light and feels like plastic but it also crumbles so I doubt it is. I don’t know what it is or where it came from but I love its color; almost the same as the blue of cohosh fruit.

9. Unknown Stems

And then I saw these strange little trumpet shaped stems. They easily pulled right out of the wet soil and had a tap root.

10. Unknown Stem

The stems were thin and hollow and felt like paper. I don’t know what plant they’re from but there is a huge selection of plants growing here. I’ll have to see if I can figure it out in the summer when they’re growing.

11. Drainage Ditch

The drainage ditches had so much water in them in places it looked like they would wash up over the trail. I moved some bunches of wet leaves that were holding back the flow in a couple of places.

12. Fallen Ice

And this is where I had to stop. If you look closely you can see ice columns that have fallen completely across the trail. These columns are huge, easily as big as trees, and if one ever fell on you it wouldn’t be good.

13. Fallen Ice

This “small piece” was about two feet square. I can’t imagine what it must have weighed but I wouldn’t want to feel it falling on me.

14. Green Ice

The ice here is often colored, I think because of the various minerals in the groundwater, and there was some green ice left. It was very rotten and I didn’t get near it. Rotten ice has a matte, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it gives it away. It should sound like a sharp crack. Ice becomes rotten when air and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

15. Great Scented Liverwort

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) made it through the winter just fine despite many of them being completely encased in ice. They like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water but of course in winter that means ice. They show that the groundwater here is very clean and most likely drinkable.

16. Great Scented Liverwort

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant and they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle. I didn’t have my rubber boots with me to walk through the drainage ditches so I had to take this shot from about 6 feet away, but at least you can see the pores and air chambers outlined on the many leaf surfaces. It makes them look very reptilian and leads to the name snakeskin liverwort.

17. Algae

The green algae called Trentepohlia aurea looks to be spreading some. Though it is called green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes it orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you. Algae produce millions of spores and colored rain has fallen all over the world because of the wind taking the spores up into the sky. If you ever hear of red rain chances are it’s algae spores coloring it.

18. Mosses

It was so nice to see so much green for a change. It was also nice and warm here, which was a surprise with all the ice.

19. Ostrich Fern Frond

I was surprised to find the fertile frond of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) because I’ve never seen one growing here. Now I want to come back to get photos of the fiddleheads, which are pretty and very hard to find in this area. There are thousands of ostrich ferns growing along the Connecticut River but most of the land along it is privately owned.

20. Unknown Leaf

Well, in the end I never did find coltsfoot plants in bloom but I certainly found lots of mysteries along the trail on this day. Here’s another one that maybe one of you can solve. I know I’ve seen this plant and I should know its name, but I can’t think of it. The leaves are large at about an inch and a half across, and I think the bronze color is just what they do in winter. They sprawl on the ground in all directions from a central crown like a violet, but the leaves are too big to be a violet. It’s a pretty thing but without flowers it’s hard to identify.

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford

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Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Sunday was a beautiful day for a change, with bright sunshine and relatively warm temperatures for November, so I thought I’d hike a rail trail I know of up in Westmoreland. This is the one I travel in May when I want to see the wild columbines in bloom, but I don’t know if I’ve ever come out here in the fall. That’s a shame; I’ve missed a lot of beauty.

I was a little dismayed but not surprised to see water on the trail. We’ve had a deluge of rain over the past few months and there is water everywhere. Usually though, you don’t find it on rail trails because the railroad built drainage ditches along the sides of the rail bed. They never would have put up with seeing this much water here. It’s possible the drainage ditches have failed because of fallen debris in them, but I don’t know for sure.

The forest that the rail trail goes through is mostly hardwoods like beech, oak and maple with few evergreens.

It’s hard to tell from this photo but these ledges are way up on the top of the hillside we saw in that previous shot. With all that stone warmed by the sun it looks like a great place for animals to den up.

Speaking of animals, this is a known bear area. I’m not sure if these marks were done by a bear but they were as big as my hand and they were on several trees.

The glimpses of sunlit beeches were enough to make me just stop and admire them for a while. Beeches are such beautiful trees, from bud break in spring until their leaves finally fall the following spring, they are year round friends.

There is an unusual box culvert out here that had a lot of water running through it due to heavy rain the previous day. I’ve been out here many times but this is the first time I’ve seen this much water here; usually there isn’t any. The box culvert is unusual because its joints are mortared. Almost every other one I’ve seen was laid up dry with no mortar.  The mortar could have been used in a repair years after it was built though, which is what I suspect. You don’t find much mortar in railroad stonework.

I saw some nicely colored turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) decorating a log. There were hundreds of them. I think my favorites are the ones with blue or purple colors in them.

Of course there were stone walls; there are always stone walls in New Hampshire. Property owners almost always built them along railroads to mark the place where their land ended and railroad right of ways began. The walls here are unusual because they were built largely of railroad cast off stone that had been blasted out of the ledges. If the railroad didn’t use it to build with they often simply dumped it in large piles throughout the woods and landowners picked from them. You can tell by the way there is hardly a round corner to be found in a wall.  The stones have square and angular corners and flat faces, though the section in this photo does have more rounded fieldstones than most of the wall did.

If you look closely you can see the hand of man in the stones. These finger size grooves were made by hand with a star drill or possibly a steam drill. You drilled your holes and then tapped small tools called feathers and wedges into them. The pressure exerted by the wedges would break the stone, leaving a flat face with finger shaped grooves. It was a huge amount of work but once the stone was cut the stone masons used it to build culverts, bridges, tunnels, walls and anything else they needed to get the tracks down and moving forward.

And they’re still building walls out here. They recently logged this land and the loggers built a road to where they had to be. The stones are used as a retaining wall to hold the road up and they’re big. They also have that “new” clean look that tells you they haven’t been there long.

We’re almost there. What looks like a dark tunnel up ahead isn’t a tunnel and it isn’t that dark, and that’s where we’re going.

I saw quite a few maple seedlings still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

I think the seedlings were red maples (Acer rubrum) and I think that because larger maples showed target canker which, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only attacks red maples. It is caused by a fungus which kills the tree’s healthy bark and the patterns of platy bark seen in this photo are the tree’s response to the fungus. It grows new bark each year in the circular patterns seen here to contain the fungus. Usually the fungus will not kill the tree.

More signs of the railroad; a tie plate with a bent spike still in it was beside the trail. You can find a lot of railroad artifacts by walking rail trails.

And here we are at the ledges where the columbines grow, looking back the way we just came. The stone here is very dark but I have a feeling these ledges have limestone in them because of the lime loving plants that live here.

There isn’t much soil on the stones but there is enough to grow columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and in some cases even trees. I was wishing I could have seen some of the beautiful red and yellow flowers but I’ll have to wait until next May for that.

I did see some asters scattered along the trail, and though I don’t know their name they were a welcome sight. Any flower is welcome in November.

I wasn’t expecting to find columbines blooming out here but I was hoping to find blue cohosh berries (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and there they were. I found this plant when I came out here in May to get photos of the columbines and a chance to see the beautiful blue “berries” is what brought me back on this day. The berries are actually brown seeds with a fleshy blue coating that protects them, and the seeds are what are considered the plant’s true fruit, so the plant is a bit unusual. Now that I’ve seen the foliage, flowers and fruit I need to come here in the spring, in April I’d guess, to see the beautiful dark blue spring shoots. They look like tiny blue hands reaching out of the soil.

Blue cohosh fruit is actually darkly colored like a blueberry and like a blueberry the “bloom” made up of waxy white crystals that cover the berries reflect the light in a way that makes them appear lighter colored. Some describe them as “blueberries dipped in confectioner’s sugar.” This plant is very rare in this area so I’m hoping these fruits will grow new plants, but deer love eating the plant so the odds are against it. I should mention that, though Native Americans used the roots of the plant medicinally and herbalists still use it today, science says that it has “poisonous properties” and the “berries” can make you quite sick.

Here is a photo of a blue cohosh flower that I took on May 12th of this year, so it’s an early bloomer. Each of the yellow green striped sepals of the flower contains a nectar gland to attract insects.  6 yellow stamens 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 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.

The trail went on, north to Walpole before crossing into Vermont, but I did not. I turned around, happy that I had now seen such a rare plant in three stages of growth. This is only the second time I’ve seen it and the first time all I saw were the blue fruits, so the hike was well worth the effort. I’m really anxious to see the dark blue shoots in spring, and that probably means that winter will pass slowly. But then I suppose that it always does.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

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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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Seeing the purple trilliums bloom told me that it was time to walk down an old rail trail in Westmoreland to see the wild columbines bloom. But purple trilliums aren’t the only sign and I almost turned back when I saw that the red elderberry at the start of the trail wasn’t blooming yet. So far every time I’ve seen the columbines in bloom the red elderberry was blooming as well.

There has been a lot of logging going on up here over the past few years and you can now see deep into the forest, which is or was mostly beech, maple and oak. I was glad I could see so far because this is known bear country up here. I had a can of bear spray with me but I’m hoping I never have to use it. If I saw a bear way off in the distance I’d sooner leave the woods to it rather than spray it.

It was a little disorienting to see the plants so far along here. Here were ferns in leaf while in Keene they were barely out of the ground.

I was just taking photos of striped maple buds (Acer pennsylvanicum) breaking the day before and here they were in leaf.

I hadn’t seen any sign of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) in Keene but here it was in its strange, clasping pose. This is how it looks just before its leaves unfurl.

Some plants had even leafed out already. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which also comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves.

What looks like a dark tunnel is where we’re going. Once you get there you find that it isn’t dark and it isn’t a tunnel.

But what was that up ahead?

Beech bud break; one of my favorite things to see in the spring forest. They are this beautiful for a very short time; less than a day before leafing out completely. It usually starts when the buds begin to curl in mid-May, so these were early. At this point I hadn’t seen any sign of bud break in Keene.

I don’t know how long I stood there admiring the new leaves and taking photos but it was a good while. This only happens on one or two days each year and I usually lose myself in the beauty of it for a while. In what seems like no time at all the new leaves will lose their silver fringe and become completely green for the summer. If I’d seen no more of nature for the rest of the day I still would have been very happy. I do hope readers of this blog will look for new leaves in spring. They can be astoundingly beautiful and they’re so easy to find.

Here we are already. These ledges were made when the railroad cut its way through in the mid-1800s. It is part of the same rail trail that the Westmoreland deep cut is on, which I’ve posted about regularly over the years. The major difference in the two cuts is how this wall of this cut is bathed in sunshine for much of the day. It means that a lot of different species of wildflowers can grow here. I have a feeling that this ledge is lime rich because wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) prefers a slightly alkaline soil.

There they were and I was surprised, because though every other plant I had seen here was ahead of its cousins to the south the columbines were not. They were heavily budded though and I won’t mind another walk out here to see the blossoms. Most of the columbines grow over my head on the ledges so getting good photos of them can be difficult. I tried climbing up to them once and slipped on the oak leaves, landing in a very undignified heap at the foot of the ledge.

This bud was within reach and had a few stamens poking out. It also had what looks like a tiny insect egg on it, there on the left. I’m guessing that it would have been about the size of a single letter in any word of this sentence as they appear here; so very small I didn’t even see it until I looked at the photo.

The flower buds on this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) were clearly visible but I haven’t seen this plant anywhere near this far along in Keene. It must be the bright sunshine up here, or the fact that cold air runs downhill like water and pools in the valleys like the one Keene is in. This must be some type of microclimate.

Jack in the pulpit plants (Arisaema triphyllum) were blooming on the ledges. 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.

I’ve always thought of the spadix in a Jack in the pulpit as being black, but the bright sunshine shows it to actually be more plum colored. If you’re looking for Jack in the pulpit yet another name for it is bog onion, and that should tell you that it likes low, damp places. But it will also grow on stone as it does here, as long as there is dripping groundwater to keep it good and moist.

There is a large clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here as well.

I know I just showed a purple trillium in my last post but who can resist something as beautiful as this? They’ll be gone before we know it.

In my last post I told about finding marsh marigold, which is a plant I’d never seen, and here was another one I’d never seen: blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides.) Cohosh is believed to be an Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit and in this case the blue refers to the berries. The stems and leaves also have a blueish cast. I think this must have been this plant’s first year here. It stood knee high right next to the trail and was quite bushy, so I surely would have seen it last year. It is said to be long lived when it grows in a place that it likes.

Each of the 6 yellow green petal-like sepals of the blue cohosh flower contains a nectar gland to attract spring insects. The flowers are small at about 1/2 inch across. 6 yellow stamens form a ring around the green center ovary. The true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. Though both Native Americans and early settlers used the plant medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including childbirth, it contains alkaloids and all parts of it should be considered toxic.

Though the flower buds showed some blue the name blue cohosh actually comes from the blue fruit, which looks much like a blueberry but isn’t really a berry at all. They are actually brown seeds with a dark blue fleshy seed coat that protects them. The naked seeds are considered the plant’s fruit but are poisonous. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the “berries” when they ripen in summer. It also has beautiful dark blue shoots as it comes out of the ground in spring, so of course I’ll have to be here next year to see that as well. I certainly haven’t seen every plant there is to see but I’ve seen many, so finding two plants I’ve never seen before in one day really amazed me. I think I had a great week. Tomorrow I’ll go back to see those columbines in bloom.

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

Thanks for stopping in. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there!

 

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The last time I visited the deep cut rail trail that was once part of the northern branch of the Cheshire Railroad there were huge columns of ice hanging from the walls of the manmade canyon. These ice columns start to melt in the spring and can sometimes fall into the trail. Since they’re big enough to crush a person I stay away from this, one of my favorite places, until I’m sure they’ve melted. Though we’ve had a cool May I was sure they had melted by last Sunday, so off I went.

Right off I noticed something disturbing; a rock half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle had fallen from the face of the canyon. Particularly disturbing was how it fell right into the drainage ditch, which is where I am when I want to get close to the liverworts and other plants that grow on these walls. Thoughts of tons of stone whistling 50 feet down through the air certainly captured my attention for a while. It’s going to take a lot more than muscle and pry bars to move this one. I’m not sure that a backhoe could even move it.

As I walked around the stone I saw that more than one had fallen, and when they fell they took down a yellow birch tree about 6 inches across, which someone had cut up. The New Hampshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train in rock and ice climbing and I hope there wasn’t anyone near here when all of this fell. If anyone were to be hit by even the smallest stone I doubt they would have survived.

Rocks fall here regularly because of the constantly seeping groundwater. In the winter it freezes, and when it freezes the ice in the many fissures inside the stone expands enough to fracture it into pieces, which eventually succumb to gravity. This year there is a lot of groundwater seeping through; all the cliff faces were wet, as the above photo shows. Of course, the plants love it.

Three or four years ago a stream appeared out of nowhere and has run down the rock face ever since, winter and summer. It’s a good thing the railroad dug wide drainage ditches along this section of rail bed, otherwise the place would be flooded and impassable from so much water constantly pouring in. The ditches have kept the rail bed dry for nearly 150 years now.

Apparently I’ve been walking right by mountain maple trees (Acer spicatum) all of my life without realizing it, but now all of the sudden I’m seeing them everywhere I go. That could be because they’re flowering now, and these trees flower like no other maple. All other maple trees have flowers that hang down but mountain maple’s flower clusters stand upright, above the leaves. At a glance the big leaves look much like striped maple leaves (Acer pensylvanicum) and I think that’s why I haven’t noticed them; I didn’t look closely. The shrub like tree is a good indicator of moist soil which leans toward the alkaline side of neutral. Native Americans made an infusion of the pith of the young twigs to use as eye drops to soothe eyes irritated by campfire smoke, and the large leaves were packed around apples and root crops to help preserve them.

There might be plenty of fruit to snack on later. Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) bloomed all along the trail but many types of wildlife eat the berries, so I doubt I’ll get any. Wild strawberry is one of two species of strawberry (Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria chiloensis) that were hybridized to create the modern strawberry. Strawberries were an important food for Native Americans and they made a cold tea of mashed strawberries, strawberry juice, water and sassafras tea to drink at their strawberry moon festivals in spring. For that reason it was called strawberry moon tea.

Up ahead a big red maple had fallen across the trail and its top had caught on the opposite rim of the canyon. There are many people who ride and walk along this trail and I hoped there wasn’t anyone near it when it fell. Once again I was dismayed to notice that, same as the stone had, the tree’s butt end fell right into the drainage ditch.

The maple had broken off about 6 feet up its trunk, probably in a good wind. Bark was missing and that’s a good sign that it had died some time before.

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grow here by the hundreds but I was surprised to see them because I’ve never noticed them before. I’m guessing that I’ve never come here when many of the plants I saw on this day were blooming. With such a huge variety of plants all growing together it’s a simple thing to miss a leaf or two, even when walking at a toddler’s pace. Before long many of the plants here, like tall meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum,) will be shoulder high.

What I think are marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) grow here by the thousands and I was glad that I got here when they were blooming because it was quite a sight. The 5 petaled flowers stand above the leaves on tallish (6-7”) stems and can be violet, dark blue and sometimes white, They are said to be darker at their center, as these were. Many Native American tribes used violets medicinally for everything from stomach pain to swollen joints. A blue dye was also made from the plants, used to dye arrow shafts blue.

When I look up at the rim of this manmade canyon I don’t think about falling stones or trees; I think about how lucky I am to have found a place so beautiful, where nearly every surface is covered with plants of all kinds. I think of the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in Lost Horizon, and imagine that I’ve found it. As a boy I dreamed of being a plant hunter in distant jungles, and this is the closest I’ve ever been able to come. I’ve found many plants here that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

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 of the algae called Trentepohlia aurea. It is one of the things I found here that I can’t see anywhere else and is one of the reasons I put on my rubber boots and walk in the drainage ditches. Up close it is surprisingly hairy. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I haven’t yet.

Another plant I’ve never seen anywhere else is the eastern swamp saxifrage (Saxifraga pensylvanica.) In fact this day was the only time I’ve ever seen it, and I think the only reason I saw it at all was because it happened to be flowering. The thick, three foot tall flower stalk is covered in sticky hairs and terminates in several flower clusters. The flowers aren’t really anything to write home about; they’re small and greenish with petals that can be green, white or yellow, and rarely purple.  One plant has a single flower stem and both black bears and deer love to eat it. I know there are deer here so I was lucky to see it.

The big leaves of swamp saxifrage are in a basal rosette, each about 9 inches long and 3 inches wide, widest at or above the middle, with a blunt or sharp point at the tip, tapering at the base, on a short reddish stalk. The leaves and flower stalk are edible and the Native American Cherokee tribe ate the young leaves as salad greens. They also used the plant’s roots in a poultice to treat muscle soreness.

Another plant that grows here that I’ve never seen anywhere else is wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris.) At least I think it is wild chervil; so many plants in the carrot family look alike. Some call it Queen Anne’s lace on steroids but its fern like leaves don’t look anything like queen Anne’s lace leaves to me. This plant is thought to have been introduced to North America from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in many places. Oddly, some of those places are very cold, like Alaska, Iceland and Greenland. It makes sense that it would like this place then, because it gets very cold in winter and has ice columns that grow to unbelievable proportions.  Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been reported to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties against human cancer cells. It is an entirely different species than cultivated chervil, which is an herb used for flavoring soups.

Mosses of every description grow to cover huge areas of the vertical walls because of all the water available. It makes the place seem even more like a lush, verdant paradise.

A little violet grew alone on a ledge where it would be constantly watered by the splashing water. I never knew that violets liked so much water, but I guess names like marsh violet should have been a clue. I’ve even seen them growing in standing water this year.

A dandelion also grew on a ledge near splashing water. I wondered how this plant, which has a long tap root, could grow on a stone that was covered by maybe a half inch of soil.

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water. I was surprised last winter to see that many of the plants had turned gray and appeared to be dying. On this day when I walked in the drainage ditch to get close enough for photos I noticed an odor rising from the water with each step, as if it were stagnant, and now I wonder if something in the water is killing them off. Even those that show new growth appear much smaller than in previous visits.

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant so I hope I’m wrong about what I’m seeing. Without knowing much about them it’s hard to say. What I’m seeing could be a natural phase of their life cycle. At least that’s what I’m hoping. I’d hate to see them disappear because they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle.

The photos of the liverworts were taken quickly, rushed because in the back of my mind there were thoughts of things falling from the cliff wall I was standing under at the time. I later stood at what is left of the old lineman’s shack thinking about that but knowing that though there may be danger here, I’d be coming back. For me this is a place of wonder and bliss, a place like no other I know, and I can’t just abandon it because of something that could happen someday.  What I can do though, is stay out of the drainage ditches. That I probably will do, but we’ll see.

Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing. ~Denis Waitley

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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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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