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Posts Tagged ‘Westmoreland’

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

Instead we go south to where all the growth is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like the fern like leaves of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) which grows along the drainage channels here. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. It isn’t the same as the cultivated chervil used to flavor soups and it shouldn’t be eaten. In many places it is called cow parsley and resembles many plants that are very poisonous, so it’s best to just admire it and let it be.

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

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

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

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

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1. Trail

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

2. Cliff Face

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

3. Trillium Colony

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

4. Possible Rattlesnake Fern

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

5. Mineral Deposits on Stone

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

6. Jack in the Pulpit Closed

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

7. Jack in the Pulpit Open

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

8. Birch Bark Lottery Ticket

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

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

9. Native Columbine

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

 10. Native Columbine Blossom

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

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

11. Trail

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

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

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1. New Boot

I bought some new rubbery waterproof boots so I could walk in drainage ditches, swamps, and streams without getting my feet wet. The only trouble with them is, they aren’t insulated. When you’re walking on snow that means you don’t stand around in one place for too long with them on. I learned quickly that the way to keep your feet warm in these boots was to keep walking so, with boots for the water and Yaktrax for the ice, off I went in search of fruiting liverworts.

2. Drainage Ditch

Between the stone walls of this old railroad cut and the rail bed are drainage ditches that the railroad engineers designed in the early 1800s, and which still work well. But without boots on they also keep you from getting close to any of the mosses, ferns, and liverworts that grow on the ledge walls. The water isn’t much more than 8-12 inches deep but it is spring fed and very cold, even with boots on.

3. Icy Walls

In places the drainage ditches are still frozen over and I walked on them where I could, but much of the ice hanging from these 30 foot high walls is rotten at this time of year so you have to pay attention to what is hanging above you.

4. Ice Colors

I took this photo to show the subtle color variations in the ice. It can be quite beautiful in various shades of blue and green.

5. Fallen Ice

The ice can also be quite dangerous. The pieces in this photo are as big as tree trunks-plenty big enough to crush someone.

 6. Fallen Rock

Ice isn’t the only thing falling from these walls. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t also buy a hard hat, though this stone was big enough to make wearing a hard hat a waste of time.

7. Mossy Walls

Finally after a short hike I saw some signs of life.  The constant drip of water over these stones makes this a perfect home for all kinds of masses and liverworts.

8. Great Scented Liverwort Growing on Stone

It’s hard to tell from this photo but liverworts are quite small. Length varies but the width of the above example of the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) is only about a quarter to half an inch. Liverworts don’t have roots but they do have “anchoring structures” called rhizoids that help them cling to vertical surfaces. Liverworts that grow in flat, green sheets like this one are called thallose liverworts. Thallose means “a green shoot or twig.”  They are quite different from leafy liverworts.

 9. Great Scented Liverwort Closeup

I didn’t see any liverworts with male or female fruiting structures but many had small “buds” at the ends of the branches indicating that new spring growth has begun. Conocephalum conicum is the only liverwort that looks like snake skin so its beauty is all its own. The surface looks scaly because of the way the liverwort’s air chambers are outlined, and each of the tiny white dots in the centers of the “scales” is an air pore.

10. Marginal Wood Fern

Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) was in a perfect position to show me how it got its common name. Its sori, (spore cases) sit on the outer margins of the underside of each leaf (pinnule).

11. Marginal Wood Fern Sori

This is a closer look at the marginal wood fern’s sori. A single sorus is a cluster of sporangia, which are the structures that produce the spores. In some instances they look like tiny flowers on the underside of the fern leaf. Some ferns have sori that are naked or uncovered but marginal wood fern’s sori are covered by a thin, cap-like membrane called an indusium. If you can see the individual sporangia like those in the photo, then you know the membrane has come off and the fern has released its spores.

12. Dog Lichen

Something I hadn’t seen here before was this membranous dog lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Since it is a water lover it makes sense that it would grow here. This lichen often grows near moss because mosses retain the water that it needs, and this one was growing right on top of a large bed of moss. In her book Gathering Moss author Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of lichens being the pioneers that etch rock faces so mosses can gain a foothold, but dog lichens seem to have it backwards since they seem to have moved in after the mosses.

13. Baby Tooth Moss aka Plagiomnium cuspidatum

Baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) was busy with spore production. As they mature the sharply pointed sporophytes will become more barrel shaped with flat ends, and will bend until the capsules droop just past horizontal. I wonder why so many mosses, lichens and liverworts decide to release their spores at this time of year. I’m sure wind and water must have something to do with it.

14. Green Algae

The bright orange color in this green alga (Trentepohlia aurea.) comes from the carotenoid pigment in the algae cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color.

Since it prefers growing on lime-rich substrates these algae are a good indicator of what type of stone or soil is in the area. If you are looking for plants or wildflowers that like lime rich soil, like hepatica, marsh marigold, or many orchids, seeing orange (green) algae can be an important clue to the type of soil in the area.

15. Pocket Moss aka Fissidens adianthoides Closeup

The grayisg thing on the right side of this photo is a pine needle. I didn’t plan on it being in this shot but since it is it can be used to give a sense of the size of this maidenhair pocket moss (Fissidens adianthoides). This moss is a water lover that grows near waterfalls and streams on rock, wood, or soil. What shows in this photo would fit on the face of a penny.

Many of the things that grow here are very small and the light is often poor because of the high rock walls, so I have to get quite close to them to get a decent photo. These new boots let me do that and I’m happy with them. If you find yourself in a similar situation you might want to try a pair.

Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.  ~Rachel Carson

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Last Sunday I went to Westmoreland, New Hampshire, which is North West of Keene on the banks of the Connecticut River. Westmoreland is an island of alkaline soil in county of mainly acidic soil. In fact, much of this part of the state has acid soil. If you are trying to find plants that like alkaline soil like hepatica, anemone, and many types of orchids, acid soil can be a problem.

 1. Railroad Cut

Knowing where the plants you are searching for are likely to grow isn’t enough though-you still need access to the land. Fortunately the Cheshire Railroad provided that many years ago. The railroad was named after Cheshire County, New Hampshire.

 2. Ice on Ledges

This stretch of railroad once ran from Bellows Falls, Vermont to various towns in northern Massachusetts after being built in the mid-1800s. The route runs through, rather than over or around this hill. This is known as a deep cut.

3. Cheshire Railroad in 1870

This is what it looked like circa 1870 when it was relatively new. If I had to guess I’d say the man on the right was picking berries. Raspberries, blackberries and black raspberries grow all along the railroad beds in this area. The Cheshire Railroad was swallowed up by the Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Railroad, which in turn was bought out by the Boston and Maine Railroad. This picture is from the Cheshire County Historical Society.

 4. Ice on Ledges

Many railroad spurs in this area had their tracks torn up and were abandoned from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. This section is well known to ice climbers and snowmobilers.  Ice climbers have to beware at this time of year though, because much of this ice is rotten. In fact, in places you can hear water running down the stone behind the ice. The height of this ledge was probably 25-30 feet.

 5. Railroad Ties

Piles of railroad ties line the cut and remind visitors of its history.

6. Trail through Ledges

In places the walls of this man made canyon soar up to 70 feet or more. It’s easy to see why it was called a deep cut. Out of view-several hundred yards to the left-the north/south Route 12 highway goes up and over this hill.

7. Blasting Hole

The railroad workers made their way through the hillsides by drilling holes into the stone and then blasting. Deep holes like these were probably drilled by steam power and are evidence that black powder, rather than dynamite, was used. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866, so it was either black powder or brute force. After the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of stone. There are several dump sites that can be seen from the highway, but they are quite far from this cut.

 8. Stone Wall and Drainage Ditch

Not all of the blasted stone was dumped-miles of stone retaining walls line the cut and hold back the hillside. The railroad company must have had stone cutters working right at the site, cutting and fitting the blasted stone into stone walls that have stood since the mid-1800s. The railroad also dug deep drainage ditches between the roadbed and walls to keep everything dry. They still work fine today.

 9. Algae

 Some of the ditches had strange things going on in them. In places algae (?) grew in long strands.

10. Mineral Stain on Rock face

Years of mineral seepage had stained the stones here and there.

11. Frosted Grain-Spored Lichen

With all the stone in the area lichens were easily found. This is frosted grain-spored lichen (Sarcogyne regularis.) Reflective crystals of wax-like material make the red-brown fruiting bodies appear blue.

 12. Intermediate Wood Fern Crown

The crown of an intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa var. intermedia) showed great promise, with several fiddle heads all ready to start growing.

 13. Hedwigia ciliata Moss

Medusa moss (Hedwigia ciliata) grew on boulders. This moss is easy to identify because of thepale, whitish tips on its leaves and bright red-orange stems. Dry plants look like clusters of stiff, frosty worms.

14. Green Grass

The deepest parts of the cut don’t see much, if any, sunshine so there was more snow there than I expected. Still, things like this small clump of grass were green and growing. I’m going to try to get back here at least once each week to see what else grows here.

There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country.  A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. ~ Paul Scott Mowrer

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My lichen book, Lichens of the North Woods by Joe Walewski, says that one of the best places to find lichens is in a cemetery. I suppose that I already knew that but I’ve never really done anything about it, so last weekend I decided to visit an old cemetery in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. The town is North West of Keene on the banks of the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont. My Grandfather was the town blacksmith here in the late 1800s.

1. Cemetary Wall

Though many of our cemeteries date to before the revolutionary war this one is relatively young, having been established in 1806. Most of our older cemeteries are bordered by stone walls. Stone was a cheap, easy to find material that built walls, foundations, and even entire houses that have stood for centuries.

2. Hitching Ring

There were rings for hitching horses driven into the top of the wall every 10 feet or so. My grandfather would have forged things very much like this.

3. Cemetary Woodpecker Instead of pecking wood like he is supposed to, this little clown squeaked and squawked at me the whole time I was at the cemetery. He was quite high on this branch on a dreary, foggy day, so the pictures aren’t the greatest. I think he’s a hairy woodpecker, but he could also be a downy woodpecker. He was about as big as a blue jay, or maybe even a little bigger. In this picture he was either showing how he could hang on with one foot or waving me off.

4. Cemetary Woodpecker

When I asked him what the problem was he ran up a limb and squawked even louder. (Yes-I really did ask him that.) If you would like to hear what he sounded like, just click here. Ignore the drumming sounds though-this one just squawked and didn’t peck wood at all. At least, not in mixed company.

5. Lichens on Headstone

In spite of the woodpecker scolding I still looked for lichens. This stone was covered with them.

6. Green and Yellow Lichens

Most of the lichens I saw here were fairly common and not very exciting, but these nice yellow-orange ones were dotted here and there. I think this is the elegant sunburst lichen (Xanthoria elegans.) This lichen has been studied extensively in extreme environments, including that of outer space. It survived an 18 month exposure to solar UV radiation, vacuum, cosmic rays and varying temperatures in an experiment performed by the European Space Agency outside of the International Space Station. Lichens probably have the best chance of any earth based life form of successfully colonizing another planet.

7. Beaver Lodge

Since I wasn’t seeing any really unusual or beautiful lichens I decided to leave the cemetery to the woodpecker. (He jabbered at me all the way to my truck.) On the way home I decided to stop and see what the beavers were up to. I think this pond is the only body of water that I’ve seen completely frozen over this winter. 

8. Beaver Damage on Elm

Of all the trees in the forest beavers could gnaw on they chose elm, which is one of the toughest. Dutch elm disease swept through this part of the country starting in the 1950s so our elms have a short lifespan with or without beavers visiting. 

9. Beaver Stumps

They gnawed through a couple of smaller ones. 

10. Shield Lichen

This shield lichen was on a tree and is one of the biggest I’ve seen. I think it is a common green shield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata.) When dry these lichens appear pale gray but become green when they get wet because the algae inside migrate closer to the surface. This one was very wet. Hummingbirds use shield lichens to camouflage their nests. 

11. Lichen Log

As it turned out there was no reason to drive anywhere to see lichens as this “lichen garden” that I found less than a mile from my front door shows. I’m still wondering what the whitish bumps are.

A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors ~Henry David Thoreau

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