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Posts Tagged ‘Wild Columbine’

Leaves on the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) means it’s time to say goodbye to this spring ephemeral. The flowers appear before the leaves, sometimes weeks before. Coltsfoot is said to be the earliest blooming wildflower in the northeast but there are many tree and shrub flowers that appear earlier, so I suppose “earliest” depends on what your definition of a wildflower is. In the past coltsfoot was thought to be good for the lungs and the dried leaves were often smoked as a remedy for asthma and coughs. It was also often used as a tobacco substitute, asthma or not. A native of Europe, it was brought over by early settlers who used it medicinally. This plant’s common name comes from the shape of the leaves, which are said to look like a colt’s hoof.

Seeing coltsfoot leaves means you should also see seed heads, and here they were. They look very different than a dandelion seed head; much more cottony. Coltsfoot plants have composite flowers, which is a larger flower head made up of many smaller flowers, in this case central disc florets and thin, radial, ray florets. If you turn clockwise at just about 11:30 you can see what a single tiny coltsfoot flower looks like.   

These hobblebush flowers had just opened and you can tell that from the yellow blush on each of the normally pure white flowers. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to bright red before ripening to a deep purple color. The outer infertile flowers always seem to open before the fertile ones. Hobblebushes are one of our most beautiful native shrubs.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is up and already budded. Often I’m just as surprised by what I’ve missed than what I’ve seen and, though I’ve seen this plant thousands of times, I never knew how quickly the flower buds appeared until I saw these. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is a tiny flower that you often have to sprawl on the ground to get a photo of, but the shiny 3 lobed leaves make this one easy to spot. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. This plant usually grows in undisturbed soil that is on the moist side. I often find it near swamps.

I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens of goldthread. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the golden true petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a striking spring wildflower. It is also called bog onion or Indian turnip. The striped outer “pulpit” is a spathe, which is essentially a sheath that protects the flowers.  “Jack,” who lives under the pulpit just like an old time New England preacher, is a spadix, which is a fleshy stem that bears the flowers. Few actually see the small flowers of a Jack in the Pulpit because they form down inside the spathe. 

I usually open the pulpit for a moment just to see what Jack is up to. This early in the year Jack has just come up and is waiting for fungus flies who think they smell mushrooms to come and fertilize his flowers. If they do the spathe will die back and a cluster of green berry-like fruit will form where the flowers were. These will turn bright red after a time and a deer might come along and eat them, helping to spread the seeds.  The root, which is a corm, may be eaten if it is cooked thoroughly and prepared correctly but is toxic when uncooked. 

Pussytoes (Antennaria) are popping up everywhere. There are close to 45 species of pussytoes, which makes identifying them more difficult.  Pussytoes are a favorite of many butterfly species. Another common name for the plant is everlasting. They like to grow in dry, sandy or rocky soil.

The flowers of the pussytoes plant are said to look like cat’s paws but I’ve never thought so. Someone also thought the stamens on a pussytoes flower looked like butterfly antennae and that’s where the Antennaria part of the scientific name came from. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat coughs, fevers, bruises, and inflammations.

I’m seeing more bluets (Houstonia caerulea) this year than I ever have and, though I often show it here I realized that I’ve never mentioned how what looks like a four petaled flower is actually a single, tubular, four lobed “petal.” However you describe them they’re pretty little things.

Wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia) have just started blooming and because of the cold, cloudy weather finding the flowers open has been a real treasure hunt. These low growing plants often grow in large colonies and the flowers can be pink or white. They have 5 (usually) white sepals and no petals. Because of the way they tremble in the slightest breeze anemones are also called wind flowers. From seed to flower takes about 4-5 years. An unusual habit is how the plants completely disappear in summer.

I gave up on showing most small yellow flowers on this blog long ago because many look so much alike that it can take quite a long time to identify them, but this one grew all alone in a big field  so I took its photo. I think it’s a common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) but it could also be the European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans.) They’ve just opened this past week.

Though I’ve never seen it in a forest creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is native to the forests of North America and has just started blooming. Another plant called creeping phlox is Phlox stolonifera, native to the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. One way to tell the two plants apart is to look for the darker band of color around the center of each flower; only Phlox subulata has it. Creeping phlox is also called moss phlox or moss pinks. April’s “pink moon” got that name from the way the “moss pinks” bloom in that month. It’s a plant that loves growing in lawns as it is here and luckily it doesn’t seem to mind being mowed. Even so many people wait until it’s done blooming to do their first spring mowing.

That darker band around the center of the flower tells me this is Phlox subulata. Most people see the beauty in the mass display but not the individuals responsible for it in creeping phlox.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) flowers are so small that even a cluster of them is hardly bigger than a nickel, and the entire plant could easily fit into a teacup. One interesting thing about this little plant is how some plants have only male flowers while others have perfect flowers with both male and female parts. Each plant can also change its gender from year to year. This photo also shows where the trifolius part of the scientific name comes from. Three to five leaflets each make up the whorl of three compound leaves. Dwarf ginseng doesn’t like disturbed ground and is usually found in old, untouched hardwood forests. It is on the rare side here and I only know of two places to find it. This is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine.

What is most unusual about this particular plant is how the flower head is misshapen. Usually the flower heads form a near perfect globe but I saw several plants on this day with out-of-round flower heads. Each flower is about 1/8 inch across, with five white petals. The three stamens on these flowers tell me they were perfect, with both male and female parts. Nothing is known about the insects that pollinate them but since I have found seed capsules on these plants something does.

We have a peach tree at work that has just come into bloom, quite early I think. This tree grows peaches but they’re more seed than fruit and they fall from the tree uneaten. Peach trees and their buds are very tender and do not like cold but peaches are grown in southern New Hampshire where there are a few pick your own peach orchards.

For years I’ve heard that flies are drawn to red trilliums (Trillium erectum) because of the carrion scented flowers and finally, here was a small fly on one.  It’s there on the left side of the bottom petal. This plant is also called stinking Benjamin and is said to be pollinated by flies as well.

I went back to the ledges in Westmoreland on a windy, snowy day to see the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming and thankfully they were. I was afraid they might have all died from frost bite but they were all unharmed, so I think maybe they aren’t quite as delicate as they appear.

I always gently bend a stem down onto the soft moss so I can get a shot looking into a blossom for those who have never seen what they look like. Columbines are all about the number 5. Each blossom has 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. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe the holes for nectar. The oval sepals are also red and the anthers are bright yellow. All together it makes for a very beautiful flower and I was happy to see them again.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

Thanks for coming by. Take care.

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We’ve seen cold, rain, snow and mostly cloudy days lately so last Saturday when it was wall to wall sunshine and 65 degrees, it seemed like a great gift. Since it was near time for wild columbines to bloom I set off along the old rail trail up in Westmoreland to the ledges where they grow. I saw all kinds of beautiful and interesting things there and it was hard to leave.

The first thing I saw was a small patch of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara.) It’s hard to believe that it’s almost time to say goodbye to this cheery little spring ephemeral but I’m seeing white in almost all the flowers I look at these days, and white is a good sign that they’re setting seed.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) grows beside the trail and it was all ready to bloom. By now it probably has.

Maple buds were breaking; the first I’ve seen this year. New maple leaves are often bright red as these were.

The velvety buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) were seen all along the trail. Sometimes they can be pink, orange, or a combination of the two like this one was.

When I looked at the other side of the bud I saw that it was breaking. The next time I come out here I should see leaves.

There is a lot of groundwater very close to the surface in Westmoreland and it runs from the cracks in the stone. That’s one reason such a variety of plants and mosses grow here.

Algae dripped from the cracks in the stone, or maybe they were washed down the face of the stone by the never ending drip of groundwater. I’ve read that they grow in nutrient rich places. They’re always interesting so I wanted to take a closer look.

The algae were spirogyra, with common names that include water silk and mermaid’s tresses. It is described as a “filamentous charophyte green algae of the order Zygnematales.” The strange thing that looks like a vacuum cleaner hose is a chloroplast, and its spiral growth habit is what gives these algae their name. There are more than 400 species of Spirogyra in the world, almost always found in fresh water situations. I see it on wet stone fairly regularly. According to what I’ve read, when used medicinally spirogyra are known as an important source of “natural bioactive compounds for antibiotic, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic purposes.”

That little black square up ahead is where we’re going, but it won’t be black when we get there.

Our wild cherries should be blooming soon, and the birds will be very happy about the abundance of fruit that will follow.

This is near the area where I saw a huge black bear last year at this time. Since there are high stone ledges and a southern exposure it would stay quite warm here in the winter I would think, and that tells me that it would be a perfect spot for a bear to live. The one I saw here certainly looked like it had been living the high life.

There is even a cave here, way up high in the cliff wall, and it’s plenty big enough for a bear. Thankfully the bear was elsewhere on this day. I carried a can of bear spray but I was very happy that I didn’t have to use it. I’ve been within touching distance of a few wild animals and last year’s encounter is the closest I ever want to be to a bear, but so far they seem to have sensed that I mean them no harm and we’ve gone our separate ways.

This is that black spot we saw in a previous photo and these are the ledges I was interested in visiting. They’re right alongside the trail and all kinds of plants grow here. I believe it’s because the stone is full of lime and the soil is much less acidic than in most other places I visit. Most Southern New Hampshire soil is quite acidic but you do find occasional “sweet spots” like this one.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) seedlings grew at the base of the ledges. I see lots of these in the spring and I’ll see lots of their orange flowers later on.

I come out here to see wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and there are plenty of them growing on the ledges. On this day most had buds but I didn’t see a single flower, so that means another trip out here this weekend. The spring shades of green are always electric here.

Here was a flower bud. Some buds looked to be close to opening but we aren’t getting a lot of sun lately so I wonder if they’ll be fully opened this weekend.

The spring shoots of smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) absolutely glowed, and it looked like someone had dipped a paintbrush in pure light and painted them there on the ledges. How beautiful they were. Native Americans and early colonists ate these shoots the way we would eat asparagus and they used the plant’s starchy roots in soups and stews, and dried them to make flour for bread. The Chippewa tribe sprinkled the dry roots on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to cure headaches.

Though herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) blooms from spring through October I didn’t see any flowers on this day, even though there were many plants growing at the base of the ledges. Native Americans used this plant medicinally for healing wounds, herpes and skin eruptions. The plant’s common name comes from a French monk who lived in 1000 AD, and who is said to have cured many people by using it. For that reason it is also called Saint Robert’s Herb.

There’s a nice clump of purple trillium (Trillium erectum) here at the base of the ledges and it had two or three blossoms on it this year. Last year there was only one.

One of the flowers looked a little torn but it was still beautiful.

Something I’ve been searching for for a long time are the small blue spring shoots of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and this year I found them but I was about a week late and they had grown to about 6 inches high. They had also lost that vivid purplish blue color that they have when they have just come out of the ground. But now I know that next year I need to come a week or so earlier, and I’ll be here.

You can see a little bit of blue on this shoot but I’d bet by this posting the plant has already turned green. The green is kind of a light blueish green. Cohosh means “rough” when translated from Native American Algonquin language, and refers to the knobby root. A tincture of the root was said to start childbirth but science has shown the entire plant to be toxic. It’s shadow over on the right makes me think of an alien creature.

Treasures are hidden away in quiet places. They speak in soft tones and often become silenced as we approach. They don’t beg to be found, but embrace us if we do happen to find them. They are the product of completely ordinary circumstances unfolding in wonderfully extraordinary ways. They are found hidden in the nooks and crannies of our existence; all around us if we quit allowing our attention to be captivated by that which is noisy and listen for that which is quiet and still.
~Craig D. Lounsbrough

Thanks for Stopping in. It’s supposed to be a beautiful weekend here, so why not take a walk in the woods? The beauty and solitude you find there will most likely re-charge your batteries and will certainly help you put things into perspective. Stay safe everyone.

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I thought I’d illustrate our weather by showing these grape hyacinths, which should be done blooming by now. I saw the first ones blooming just a little over a month ago. Other bulbs like tulips and daffodils are also still blooming so they must be enjoying the cool, damp weather.

Trees with white flowers are everywhere and this one happens to be an apple tree. I think many people are surprised to learn that apple trees are not native to the United States. They have all come from old world stock brought over in the 1600s. Apples from Europe were grown in the Jamestown colony and the first non-native apple orchard was planted in Boston in 1625. Only the crab apple is native to this country and they were once called “common” apples. The Native American Abenaki tribe called them “apleziz” and used them for food as well as medicinally.

But it doesn’t matter where apples come from, because the fragrance is wonderful. Apple blossoms were one of my grandmother’s favorites and I remember bringing her arm loads of flowering branches when I was a boy. They were all you could smell in her house for days after.

Few of us think of creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) as a wildflower but it is actually native to the forests of North America. It is sometimes called moss phlox or moss pinks and April’s “pink moon” got that name from the way the “moss pinks” bloom in that month. It’s a plant that loves growing in lawns and luckily it doesn’t seem to mind being mowed. Even so many people wait until it’s done blooming to do their first spring mowing.

Individual creeping phlox flowers are quite pretty but I doubt many people bother to look at them. They see the mass display but not the individuals responsible for it.

Pin cherry flowers (Prunus pensylvanica) are quite pretty and are pollinated by several kinds of insects. They become small, quarter inch bright red berries (drupes) with a single seed which are also called bird cherries. The berries are said to be very sour but edible and are used in jams and jellies, presumably with a lot of sugar. Native Americans used the berries in breads and cakes and also preserved them and ate them fresh. The bark of the tree was used medicinally for a large variety of illnesses including coughs, stomach pains and as a burn salve.

I can remember picking lilacs for my grandmother on Mother’s day but not this year. I’d guess that they’re close to two weeks late. So far this small flower head is the only one I’ve seen but that’s probably because of the cool wet weather. We had a dusting of snow yesterday morning so if it’s cold enough to snow it’s cold enough to keep those buds closed. This one was small in size but not in fragrance. It’s great to smell lilacs again.

Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor) have jumped up almost over night. This beautiful dark one was the first I’ve seen. This wild form of the modern pansy has been known and loved for a very long time. It is said to have 60 names in English and 200 more in other languages. In medieval times it was called heart’s ease and was used in love potions. Stranger names include “three faces in a hood.” Whatever it’s called I like seeing it appear at the edge of my lawn in spring. I always try to encourage it by letting it go to seed but it never seems to spread.

Just after many other magnolias lose their flowers this one with tulip shaped flowers starts blooming. Its name is “Jane” and though I’m not crazy about the flower shape I love its color. It’s later bloom time means less chance of damage by frost.

Vinca (Vinca minor) has come into full bloom now. The word vinca means “to bind” in Latin, and that’s what the plant’s wiry stems do. They grow quickly into an impenetrable wiry mat that other plants can’t grow through and I’ve seen large areas of nothing but vinca in the woods, still blooming beautifully 200 years after it was first planted. You can often find huge colonies of it near old cellar holes. Still, it is nowhere near as aggressive as many other invasive plants and people enjoy seeing its beautiful violet flowers in spring. Another name for it is Myrtle.

Sessile leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) is also called wild oats and the plants have just come into bloom. They are a spring ephemeral and won’t last but they do put on a show when they carpet a forest floor. They are a buttery yellow color which in my experience is always difficult to capture with a camera. The spring shoots remind me of Solomon’s seal but the plant is actually in the lily of the valley family.

The word “sessile” in the name describes how the leaves of a sessile leaved bellwort lie flat against the stem, with no leaf stalk. The leaves are also elliptic and are wider in the middle than they are on either end.

A forest floor carpeted with sessile leaved bellworts makes an unforgettable sight. Many tens of thousands of them grow along the Ashuelot River in Keene.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) plants have three leaflets on each compound leaf and together form a whorl of three compound leaves around the stem. The plants are very small; each one would fit in a teacup with plenty of room to spare. Dwarf ginseng is very choosy about where it grows and will only grow in undisturbed ground in old hardwood forests. It is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine but it is quite rare in my experience, so it should never be picked.

Each dwarf ginseng flower head is about the size of a malted milk ball, or about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Individual flowers are about 1/8 inch across and have 5 bright white petals, a short white calyx, and 5 white stamens. In a good year the flowers might last 3 weeks, and if pollinated will be followed by tiny yellow fruits.

Pulmonaria usually has green leaves splotched with silver but this one I saw in a local park must be a new hybrid. Pulmonaria (Pulmonaria officinalis) is an old fashioned but pretty evergreen garden plant that originally hails from Europe and Asia. The silver mottled leaves were once thought to resemble a diseased lung and so its common name became lungwort. People thought it would cure respiratory ailments like bronchitis and the leaves were and still are used medicinally in tinctures and infusions.

The leaves and flowers are edible, and if you’ve ever had vermouth you’ve had a splash of pulmonaria because it is one of the ingredients. The plant does well in shade and has flowers of blue, pink, white, purple and red.

I finally saw the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming and thankfully Ii was a nice uneventful hike out to see them. I’ve found that my bear encounter of a couple of weeks ago has taken a lot of the shine off this hike. It’s hard to relax when you know you need to be on your guard.

But as always the columbines were beautiful and I lost myself in them for a while. I took shot after shot, trying to get the best view I could. Much like people flowers have a best side, and your job as a nature photographer is to find it. If you want to really see nature like you’ve never seen it before, look at it through a camera lens.

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera. ~Dorothea Lange

Thanks for stopping in.

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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

Thanks for coming by.

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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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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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I thought I’d start this post where the last one left off, when I was looking for wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis.) This time I found them in bloom but I had quite a time getting photos of them because of a nonstop wind. Anyone who knows wild columbines knows that the flowers dangle from long stalks and dance in the slightest breeze, and they danced on this day. Out of close to 75 photos I got two that are usable and here is one. It was all worth it to be able to see beauty like this, especially since it only happens once each year.

I gently bent one down onto the soft moss so I could get a shot looking into a blossom for those who have never seen what they look like. Columbines are all about the number 5. Each blossom has 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. You can see up into these spurs in this photo. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe the holes for nectar. The oval sepals are also red and the anthers are bright yellow. All together it makes for a very beautiful flower and I was happy to see them again.

Spring, like fall, starts on the forest floor with the spring ephemeral flowers and then it moves to the understory before finally reaching the treetops. Now is the time for the understory trees and shrubs to start blooming and one of the earliest is the shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis.)

Shadbush gets its name from the way it bloomed when the shad fish were running in the rivers before they were all but fished out. The plants are more of a small tree than a bush but they cross breed readily and botanists have been arguing for years about all the different species. From what I’ve seen they all have white flowers with five petals and multiple large stamens. Each flower is about three quarters of an inch across and if pollinated will become a blueberry size, reddish purple fruit in June. Its roots and bark were used medicinally be many Native American tribes, and the berries were one of the main ingredients of pemmican. Shadbush flowers also signaled that it was time to plant corn.

After shadbushes come the cherries, closely followed by the crab apples and then the plums. The small tree shown here is a young pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica,) also called bird cherry and red cherry. This plant grows as a shrub or small tree and is very common.

Pin cherry flowers are quite pretty and are pollinated by several kinds of insects. They become small, quarter inch bright red berries (drupes) with a single seed. The berries are said to be very sour but edible and are used in jams and jellies, presumably with a lot of sugar. Native Americans used the berries in breads and cakes and also preserved them and ate them fresh. The bark of the tree was used medicinally for a large variety of illnesses including coughs, stomach pains and as a burn salve.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is one of our most beautiful native shrubs in my opinion, and they have just started blooming. The large white, flat flower heads are very noticeable as they bloom on hillsides along our roads. Botanically speaking the flower head is called a corymb, which is a flat topped disc shaped flower cluster.

Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to bright red before ripening to a deep purple color.

This shot shows the size difference between the fertile and infertile flowers and also how the center of the infertile flower is empty of reproductive parts. The outer infertile flowers are about three quarters of an inch across and a single fertile flower could hide behind a pea. All flowers in a hobblebush flower head have 5 petals, whether fertile or infertile.

Blooming everywhere in lawns right now is one of our lawn loving wildflowers: bluets (Houstonia caerulea.) These tiny, 3/8 inch diameter flowers make up for size with numbers and huge drifts of them yards in width and length are common.  Though they bloom in early spring and are called a spring ephemeral I’ve seen them bloom all summer long where they weren’t mowed.

Because they grow in such huge colonies getting a photo of a single bluet blossom is difficult. In fact this is the only one I’ve ever gotten. I love seeing these cheery little flowers in spring and I always look for the bluest one. So far this year this example is it. The native American Cherokee tribe used bluets to cure bedwetting, but I’m not sure exactly how.

I gave up on showing most small yellow flowers on this blog long ago because many look so much alike that it can take quite a long time to identify them, but this one grew all alone in a big field  so I took its photo. I think it’s a spring cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana) but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. It’s pretty, whatever its name is.

I’m guessing that we’re going to see a great blueberry harvest this year. These blossoms grew on a highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) but lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are also heavy with blossoms. It is said that blueberries are one of only three fruits native to North America, the others being Concord grapes and cranberries, but the crabapple is a fruit which is also native so I disagree with that line of thought. Native Americans called blueberries “star berries” and used them medicinally, spiritually, and as food. One of their favorite uses for them was in a pudding made of dried blueberries and cornmeal.

The flower shape of blueberries must be highly successful because many plants, like this Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica,) use the same basic shape. This evergreen shrub is usually planted among rhododendrons and azaleas here and as an ornamental is quite popular. Some call it the lily of the valley shrub, for obvious reasons. I like how the pearly white flowers look like tiny gold mounted fairy lights. In japan this shrub grows naturally in mountain thickets.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) plants have three leaflets on each compound leaf and together form a whorl of three compound leaves around the stem. The plants are very small; each one would fit in a teacup with plenty of room to spare. Dwarf ginseng is very choosy about where it grows and will only grow in undisturbed ground in old hardwood forests. It is not the ginseng used in herbal medicine but is quite rare in my experience, so it should never be picked.

Each dwarf ginseng flower head is about the size of a malted milk ball, or about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Individual flowers are about 1/8 inch across and have 5 bright white petals, a short white calyx, and 5 white stamens. In a good year the flowers might last 3 weeks, and if pollinated will be followed by tiny yellow fruits.

Though perspective makes this eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) look big it’s actually on the small side. Redbuds are native trees but they aren’t native to New Hampshire and their hardiness is questionable, but this one has made it through -20 degree F. temperatures. It’s possible that it was grown from northern grown seed. They’re very pretty but I know of only two of them in the area.

It’s obvious that the redbud is in the pea / bean family. The flowers are very small but there are enough of them on the naked branches to put on quite a show.

The whitish flower panicles of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are just coming into full bloom. I don’t see a lot of these native shrubs but I wouldn’t call them rare, because if they like a certain place they will spread. In this location there must be at least twenty of them.

Each greenish white red elderberry flower is tiny at about 1/8 inch across, but has a lot going on. They have five petals which are called “petaloid lobes” and which curve sharply backwards. Five stamens have white filaments and are tipped with pale yellow anthers. The flower is completed by a center pistil with three tiny stigmata. If pollinated each flower will become a small, bright red berry. Though the plant is toxic Native Americans knew how to cook the berries to remove their toxicity. They are said to be very bitter unless prepared correctly. Birds love them and each year they disappear so quickly I’m not able to get a photo of them.

Sessile leaved bellwort is also called wild oats and the plants have just come into bloom. They are a spring ephemeral and won’t last but they do put on a show when they carpet a forest floor. They are a buttery yellow color which in my experience is always difficult to capture with a camera. In this case the word sessile describes how the leaves lie flat against the stem with no stalk. The leaves are also elliptic and are wider in the middle than they are on either end. The spring shoots remind me of Solomon’s seal but the plant is actually in the lily of the valley family.

Flowers carry not only beauty but also the silent song of love. You just have to feel it. ~Debasish Mridha

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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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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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