Just as we have to say goodbye to the resplendent colors of fall, the last flowering plants of the year put on a final show of color before we resign ourselves to a season of white snow, gray skies, and cold winds.
Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a generally inconspicuous understory species, often overshadowed by the birches and maples of New York’s forests, but when the trees lose their leaves every year, it gives this common shrub and opportunity to take the spotlight.
In early fall, witch-hazel plants begin to disperse their seeds, which have been ripening over the course of the entire year. At this time, the fruits of the plant open up to reveal two glossy black seeds which are explosively ejected away from the plant—this unusual behavior earns it the colloquial name, snapping hazel.
After the seeds have been dispersed, witch-hazel flowers bloom in preparation next year’s fruit. In New York, you’ll see the spidery yellow blooms beginning in mid- to late October and early November. Regional variations in colors range from greenish gold to red, but yellow is the most common color, especially in the Hudson Highlands region.
Featured image is a witch-hazel blossom. Photo citation: Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org. Post by Paris Harper
NYS Parks often has to perform a balancing act between meeting the needs of the wildlife and environments, and providing the opportunities for recreation that sometimes negatively impact ecosystems, but also allow people to experience nature and buoy the public interest in maintaining and protecting our parks.
Mud Lake, at Robert V. Riddell (RVR) State Park in Delaware County, is a good example of such a place. The NY Natural Heritage program (NYNHP) completed a vegetation map based on field surveys at Robert V. Riddell State Park, and has documented one rare insect species and a high quality dwarf shrub bog, both at Mud Lake. Mud Lake is a very scenic feature in the park, but as park use increases, this fragile ecosystem faces greater risks. For this reason, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) is looking to provide better visitor access to Mud Lake while protecting the fragile bog and pond habitat.
Given that RVR has only recently been designated a state park, there has been relatively little development beyond trail surveys and invasive species removal. Because the park is so close to Hartwick College, one of the most important uses of the park is for education and research, which only adds to the importance of protecting a rare and high-quality ecosystem like Mud Lake. Hartwick College has been a long time partner of State Parks and continues to utilize Robert V. Riddell State Park for educational opportunities.
Mud Lake is located on the parcel of land recently acquired from Hartwick College. It’s a small, spring-fed pond surrounded by forest and circled by a narrow band of spruce and tamarack trees, transitioning to low shrubs, and finally to a floating mat of sphagnum peat at the edge of the open water. This type of ecosystem is called a dwarf shrub bog, and it is a particularly fragile environment. Wild cranberries only grow in dwarf shrub bogs, as do carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. These plants can be found growing out of the peat moss.
The peat is strong enough to walk on, but the water flowing through the thick vegetative mat gives you the feeling of standing on a waterbed – I was afraid of falling through!
Visitor access to Mud Lake is challenging. Currently, there is no defined pathway that can take you from the edge of the forest out to the open pond and bog area. This means any park visitors that want to get a closer look are making their own paths through the edge of the bog, and putting fragile plants at risk of being crushed.
To protect Mud Lake and also to enhance visitor experiences, OPRHP is in the process of designing a boardwalk from the upland edge of the bog to the water’s edge, including a gathering space where groups of students and other visitors can be brought to view the bog. However, building a solid structure on a bog presents unique challenges. Last winter, core samples taken from the peat went as far as 27 feet deep and still did not hit hard earth. At the tree line, solid ground was 20 feet below the surface of the soft, damp peat layer. OPRHP is still working on resolving all the construction challenges in this project, but we are hard at work to protect Mud Lake.
featured image is of Mud Lake in early May. Post and photos by Paris Harper
NYS Parks is celebrating Earth Day 2014 with the official launch of our blog, Nature Times, produced by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. While you can find all the information you need on the locations, amenities, and policies of state parks at the official NYSParks.com website, this blog will provide information on the ongoing projects, programming, recent wildlife sightings, and general subjects of interest that relate to the New York Parks system. For our first post, we’d like to look forward to the new growth that comes in the early spring.
Each year, as the snow begins to melt and it seems like warm weather is right around the corner, the spring ephemerals push their way out of the cold, muddy ground and give us the first glimpse of spring color at the end of the long, grey winter.
The spring ephemerals are a group of perennial plants that emerge in early spring for a short period of time in which they grow, reproduce, and then die back down to their roots until the next year.
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. photo: Manfred Mielke, USDA Forest Service
Hepatica nobilis photo: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service
Dutchman’s Breeches, Dicentra cucullata. photo: Stephen M. Young, NYNHP
Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. photo: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service
The adaptive strategy of spring ephemerals is most common in deciduous forests because it allows small plants to take advantage of the high levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before all the trees regrow their leaves.
Click on the pictures in the photo gallery to get a closer look at a few of the spring ephemerals we can find in New York State Parks in the coming months, and as you’re watching outside for the appearance of spring flowers, don’t forget to check for new posts each week on NYS Parks Nature Times!