Now Blooming…

Yesterday, I continued my wildflower inventories at Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve located in the Town of Clifton Park and also along a portion of the Zim Smith Trail located in the Town of Halfmoon. A great way to spend part of a sunny Saturday! Check out my updated status of wildflower inventories.

While at Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve, I found several individual and small groupings of –

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

I then inventoried the portion of the Zim Smith Trail from Coons Crossing Road for about 1.25 miles toward Mechanicville, then returned. While only one cluster, I did come across this beautiful bouquet of –

Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana)

Since the forecast was calling for showers later today, I returned to Zim Smith Trail ahead of the incoming change in weather and wandered along it from the new trailhead in Mechanicville for about 1.25 miles, then returned. However, I found no photogenic blooms today.

Hope your wanderings provide you with early spring and ephemeral wildflower blooms.

Happy trails!

What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week?  (April week 2)

This week, I’m featuring Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

PLEASE NOTE:  New York Protected Status:  Exploitably Vulnerable = Native plants likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the State if causal factors continue unchecked.  Fragmentation of remaining habitat, contamination of the gene pool, and wild harvesting present ongoing threats to this species.

Sanguis is Latin for “blood.” The plant gets this name due to the red resin it produces when the root is cut or bruised.

Photo Credit:

American Indians used the red juice from the underground rhizome (for which the plant’s common name is derived) as a dye for baskets, clothing, and war paint, as well as for insect repellent.  Puccoon (another common name for this plant) is an American Indian term for red dye.

Identification Tips:

Depending on its stage of development, this herbaceous perennial plant is about 3-12″ tall.  It produces only basal leaves that are about 3-5″ across.  Each of these basal leaves is wrapped around the stalk of a single flower as the flower begins to bloom.  The basal leaves continue to unfold to their fullest extent as the flowers wither away.  Each basal leaf is oval-orbicular in shape (more or less circular leaf shape in which the width and length are equal, or nearly so) and palmate-reticulately veined (more than one midrib present and all veins are arranged in a network), with 5-9 major lobes and several minor lobes along the undulating margins.  The palmate-reticulate venation is fairly prominent and provides the rather succulent leaves with a wrinkly appearance, especially on their lower surfaces.  The color of the leaves on the upper surface is light green, sometimes with greyish or bluish tints, while the lower surface is whitish green.

The flowering stalk is smooth, stout, and sometimes slightly reddish, terminating in a single large flower.  This stalk is about 3-4″ tall when the flower begins to bloom.  The fragile flower develops and rises from the center of its curled leaf and it is about 1½–3″ across, consisting of 8-16 white petals and numerous stamens with prominent yellow anthers.  The blooming period lasts about 2 weeks.  However, like most members of the Poppy Family, each flower remains in bloom for only 1 or 2 days, producing a fragrant scent.  Bloodroot flowers are open during the day and close each night, but a bloom’s opening is controlled by two mechanisms:  temperature and sunlight.  Flowers do not open when temperatures are under 46°F.  As temperatures rise, flowers open earlier and close later; though on cloudy days when the sun is obscured, they will open later and close earlier.  Bloodroot flowers are hermaphroditic, with both male and female organs.  This makes it possible for the plants to either self-pollinate or be cross-pollinated.  The initial female phase lasts 1 to 3 days.  Self-pollination cannot occur during this time, because the stamens are positioned to avoid contacting the stigma even when the flower closes at night.  If flowers have not been pollinated in the initial 3 days due to cold temperatures, rain, or lack of pollinator visitation, the stamens bend down to contact the stigma and self-pollination occurs.

Across different localities, there are significant variations in this plant, involving such characteristics as the number of petals and size of the flowers, and the appearance of the foliage.

After a short-lived blooming period, each flower is replaced by a two-part seed capsule that is pointed on each end, with a row of 10-15 seeds in each half.  The round, red to black seeds ripen by the time the foliage begins to wither.  When ripe, the yellowed pods split open to scatter the seeds.

Elongated seed pods are produced (L and LC) which are filled with reddish seeds (RC) that each have a fleshy elaisome (R) that is attractive to ants.

Photo Credit:

Bloodroot seeds produce a lipid-rich appendage called an elaiosome, which is a nutritious food source for ants.  Ants collect Bloodroot seeds and carry them back to their nest, where they consume the elaiosome and discard the intact and viable seeds in old galleries or refuse tunnels.  These refuse areas tend to be high in organic matter, phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen, making them ideal for germinating the discarded Bloodroot seeds.  The mutually beneficial relationship between this plant and native ants is known as “myrmecochory” or ant farming.  The ants benefit from the nutritious food source, while the seeds that are “planted” in ant nests are safe from predation by rodents, avoid competition with parent plants, and have access to the essential nutrients present in the underground nests.

Ant gathering Bloodroot seed

Photo Credit:


Bloodroot is a magical herb.  It is often used in spells for marriage, relationships and carried to attract love.  A Cherokee legend says if you carry a small piece of the root, it will ward off evil spirits.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

There are no reported edible uses of this plant since it contains toxic alkaloids.

Please note that there are widely varying perspectives as to the safety and effectiveness of using any portion of Bloodroot for medicinal purposes.  Apparently, research has not satisfactorily documented either aspect of the use of this plant for any medicinal use due to contradictory and, often, controversial, findings and assertions.

The sap of this plant contains the alkaloid sanguinarine. This alkaloid contributes to its potential medicinal properties, though they can also be poisonous in large doses, causing nausea, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, dilated pupils, and heart failure.  The alkaloids in Bloodroot have strong antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.  Those properties also inhibit the formation of plaque and reduce gingival inflammation and bleeding; research has shown that this alkaloid is retained in the mouth for long periods after brushing, providing longer resistance to plaque and gingival inflammation.  Accordingly, sanguinarine has been used in toothpaste and oral rinses (including a widely used product), but that has largely subsequently been discontinued after additional research suggested a link between sanguinarine and oral cancer.  However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed, with some controversy, its continued use in herbal toothpastes and mouth washes.

In the mid-19th century at the London Middlesex Hospital, Dr. J. Weldon Fell experimented with the use of Bloodroot to treat skin cancers.  Also, ‘black salve’ was originally developed about that same time by an American surgeon, Jesse Fell.  Fell had heard of a plant growing on the shores of Lake Superior used by American Indians to treat cancer.  He identified it as Sanguinaria canadensis, combining it with zinc chloride to make a cancer salve known as “Fells’ paste.”  Since then, other entrepreneurs have developed topical cancer therapies based on these two core ingredients and today’s formulations are known as ‘black salve.’  However, the FDA warns that topically applied products with the above ingredients can destroy the skin and result in permanent disfigurement, tissue necrosis (death of cells in living tissue), and subsequent infection.

From the 1920s up to 1960, Mr. Harry Hoxsey operated a medical practice—with clinics in several States—treating cancer patients with a formula containing Bloodroot and several other herbs.  In the 1950s, however, the American Medical Association called Hoxsey’s tonics and salves to the attention of the FDA. Claiming that Hoxsey used herbs not approved for human consumption, the FDA forced him to shut down his clinics.  Hoxsey reopened his clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.  Most of the herbs in Hoxsey’s formulas, such as Bloodroot, have been found to have antitumor properties in recent scientific research.

Wildlife Value:

Bloodroot blossoms do not have nectar.

The pollen of the flowers attracts various kinds of bees, including Honeybees (Apis mellifera), Bumblebees (e.g., Bombus pennsylvanicus, Bombus fervidus), Small Carpenter Bees, Halictid bees, and Miner Bees (Anthophora abrupta), which serve as the plant’s primary pollinator.  Other insects that visit the flowers include Syrphid flies (Sphaerophoria philanthus) and beetles, which feed on the pollen.

Animals do not browse on any portion of this plant because of its bitterness and toxicity.

Where Found Locally:


What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week?  (April week 1)

This week, I’m featuring Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

There are many things left for May, but nothing fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes; some are snow-white, some pale pink, with just a tinge of violet, some deep purple, others the purest blue, others blue touched with lilac. A solitary blue-purple one, fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.

— “At the Study Door,” from A Year in the Fields, by 19th century naturalist John Burroughs

Identification Tips:

Sharp-lobed Hepatica is a perennial plant about 3-6″ tall.  It consists of a tuft of basal leaves that develops during the late spring, but those leaves frequently persist through the winter and can be found amongst the leaf litter of the forest floor the following spring when that subsequent new growth is coming up.  These leaves are up to 3″ long and across; each is palmately divided into 3 lobes and each lobe is oval-ovate and approximately the same size.  The common name is derived from the tips of the lobes being rather pointed in mature leaves.  The smooth upper surface of each leaf can be green, brownish green, reddish brown, or contain patches of these colors.  Usually, the upper surface is greener during the summer, but become reddish brown (sometimes burgundy colored) during the winter.

A mature plant will produce a tuft of flowers on long stalks during early to mid-spring, by which time the basal leaves that persisted during the winter may have withered away.  A single flower (may be erect or it may nod) occurs at the end of a long soft-hairy stalk about 3-4″ long; this stalk is often reddish green or reddish brown.  Each flower is up to 1″ across, consisting of 5-11 petal-like sepals and numerous white stamens.  The sepals are white, pastel pink, or pastel blue; each sepal is oblong-oval in shape.  At the base of each flower, there are 3 leafy bracts that are lanceolate, ovate, or oval in shape.  These bracts are reddish green or reddish brown, hairy across the outer surface, and shorter than the sepals.  Individual flowers are short-lived.


Another common name for Hepatica is Liverleaf, which refers to the appearance and shape of the leaves.

During the nineteenth century, hepatica treatments were all the rage — so much so, that in 1883 alone patent-medicine manufacturers utilized more than 200 tons of hepatica leaves.  A brew made from hepatica leaves was even prescribed for those suffering from cowardice and freckles, as those two maladies were thought to be liver connected.

Hepatica is considered a magical herb.  By carrying Liverleaf in a sachet at all times, it is believed that a woman could secure the love of a man.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

Hepatica is slightly toxic and has a slightly burning taste, and can cause mucosal irritation, vomiting and stomachache.  The toxin, protoanemonin, is released by enzymatic action which is activated when leaves of this plant are crushed.

Chippewas used hepatica as a treatment for convulsions, especially in children.  They called the plant, ‘gabisanikeag,’ which means “it is silent,” possibly a reference to its effect on convulsing people.  Cherokees feared dreaming of snakes, which they believed would subsequently lead to an encounter with a viper.  Thus, they would drink a tea steeped from the plant to make them vomit, thereby banishing snake dreams.

According to the Doctrine of Signatures, hepatica was first believed to be effective in the treatment of liver ailments due to the plant’s leaves’ resemblance to a human liver.  Unfortunately, there is no historical or other medical evidence that this plant offers any relief or effective treatment for such ailments.  More recently, the plant has been used medicinally for its astringent properties.  A decoction made from the leaves has been used in modern herbal medicine to treat coughing and bronchitis.

Wildlife Value:

Small bees collect pollen from the flowers, while Syrphid flies and other flies feed on the pollen.  Bee visitors include honeybees, Small Carpenter bees, Andrenid bees, Lasioglossum sweat bees, and Halictid bees.  Nectar is not provided by the flowers.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) reportedly eat the achenes (small, dry one-seeded fruit that do not open to release the seed).

Where Found Locally:


Another Sign of Spring – Draba

While continuing my wildflower inventory of Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve today, I spied a few clusters of –

Whitlow Grass (Draba verna)

These dainty plants (~2″ tall) with their tiny white blooms were wavering about in the morning’s breezes as if to greet each visitor taking the accessway over the Whipple Bridge entrance into the preserve.

A sure sign that spring has begun!

In late March or early April of each year, I keep a watchful eye open for this diminutive plant. I have a particular appreciation for it because it is closely related to another species (Draba reptans) that was highlighted in one of the essays by Aldo Leopold that comprised his entry for the month of April in his renowned book, A Sand County Almanac.

As an undergraduate majoring in natural resources studies, it was required reading. But, because it is such a well-written and insightful phenology of seasonal events, I have voluntarily read it cover-to-cover several dozen times since then. A dog-eared, duct-taped paperback copy resides in a place of honor (and quick retrieval) atop my home desk.

While I encourage you to give it a read if you’ve not yet had an opportunity to do so, I’ll leave you with this brief excerpt. It is a glimpse into the fitting tribute to both the plant and the arrival of spring from the essay, Draba.

Draba from Aldo Leopold Foundation

Happy trails!

Calling all fellow foragers: Join me for another series of online presentations

Please join me for each of my upcoming online presentations in a series of “Foraging for Wild Edibles” beginning this spring and continuing into the summer.

Please view the Events page for details about each session.

This seven-part series will feature these topics:

During each information-packed presentation, we’ll cover a few identification tips about each target species, its edibility, and a variety of delicious (and some eclectic) recipes for each to help bring out your inner chef.  Following each online presentation, a Portable Document File (PDF) will be available for download from my Foraging for Wild Edibles webpage.  Download each onto your mobile device and then use it to go on a self-guided foraging hike at the location(s) recommended in each info packet.

I hope you’ll join me.

All sessions (including the first six presentations from last year) will be archived and available for download from my Foraging for Wild Edibles webpage.

Happy foraging!

Second bloom of the year!

As I was removing the self-guided hike (for winter plant ID about invasive species) at Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve in the Town of Clifton Park today, I spied several of these shrubs in bloom – my second flowers of the year!  (First was Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) a couple of weeks ago.)

Read about this native species, which is found in small patches of thickets along several of the towpaths throughout this preserve.


Happy trails!

World Water Day

This year, organizers of World Water Day are asking us to ponder this question:

As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

The illustration above evokes a variety of memories of my own experiences with water:

  • boyhood fishing fun,
  • cross-country skiing throughout much of my lifetime,
  • coursework associated with my undergraduate studies,
  • an ongoing career working on a variety of water resources concerns, and
  • an infrequent subject of some of my hobby photography.

That’s a start on my thousand words.

What will your thousand words reflect?

I encourage you to think about it.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2018-2028 as the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development.”  The Water Action Decade commenced on World Water Day, 22 March 2018, and will end on World Water Day, 22 March 2028.  Read more about this important initiative.

Meanwhile, here is a sampling of some of my photographs associated with water…I hope they evoke some of your own memories of your experiences with water or other thoughts as to what this life-sustaining substance means to you.

Sunrise over Ann Lee Pond

Berries Under Glass = Ice-coated fruits of Asiatic Bittersweet (red) and Common Buckthorn (purple-black)

Frozen Flood: The Mohawk River in Still Life

Fire and Ice = Result of freezing rain in mid-December 2008; viewed along West Towpath @ Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve

Ice halo around sun

Heron rookery in meadow along Ballston Creek

Nature’s Backlighting: Azure Cascade (Moss Glen Falls in Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont)

Foggy morning in Newport, Rhode Island

Sign at crossing of Lower Newtown Road along the Historic Champlain Canalway Trail

Bog at Dyken Pond Preserve – Rensselaer Plateau

Atlantic Twilight – Orleans, MA

Frosted thistle

Memories: A Kaleidoscope of Imagery through Depth of Time = autumn reflection on Ann Lee Pond

Cheers! (with H20, of course)

What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (late March)

This week, I’m featuring Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

Skunk CabbageSkunk Cabbage is the first native wildflower to bloom each spring.

Skunk Cabbage generates warmth by breaking down starch that it has stored over the winter in its roots and rhizome, or underground stem. This process is called thermogenesis.

The plant can keep its internal temperature fairly constant at about 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for a week or two in early spring, even when the outside temperature is near freezing.  Once this crucial two-week period is over, it stops generating heat.

That’s a rather simplified explanation of what happens.  For a much more detailed explanation, featuring chemistry and mathematical equations, please feel free to read The biochemical basis for thermoregulation in heat-producing flowers.

-Thermoregulation in skunk cabbage (S. renifolius). (A) Skunk cabbages were photographed using a camera in the visible (left panel) and infrared spectra (right panel). The thermal image was taken with Thermotracer SC620 (FLIR). Heat production was observed in the spadix during the female stage of floral development. (B) The sequential changes in spadix (red) and air (blue) temperatures during floral development from the female to the male stage. Spadices at the female stage can maintain internal temperature at approximately 22-26°C, whereas spadices at the male stage cannot produce heat. Spadices at the bisexual stage between the female and male stages show unstable thermogenesis . Photographs of a female-and a male-stage spadix, are shown in the upper right and lower right panels, respectively . (B) was partially extracted from figure 1 in our previous paper (Ito-Inaba et al., 2009 a).

Source:  Yasuko Ito-Inaba. Thermogenesis in skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus renifolius): New insights from the ultrastructure and gene expression profiles. Advances in Horticultural Science 28(2):73-78. August 2014.

It is the only plant in our region that has this capacity.

Identification Tips:

At the center of the plant there is a short, round central root mass (a rhizome) out of which the leaves arise and from which the extensive root system forms.  The roots are each about a quarter of inch in diameter and extend out from the rhizome mass in large numbers and in all directions.  They grow unbranched for several feet and then terminate in an extensive system of fibrous rootlets.  They solidly anchor the plant into the often loose, mucky soil.  The roots have circular surface ridges which grab onto the soil and via root contractions actually help to pull the growing plant deeper and deeper into the soil.  Older plants, then, are rooted more deeply than younger plants.  This contractile root adaptation may also help to prevent frost heaving of the plant out of the freezing and thawing wet soil in which it resides.  The root system has been described as being virtually indestructible and may persist for decades and, possibly, even hundreds of years.  The roots are also important storage sites for the accumulated polysaccharides resulting from photosynthesis.  These energy molecules are used by the plant each year for its flowering and growth and also for the production of heat as described above.

This perennial plant produces a rosette of basal leaves during the spring; these leaves reach their maximum size by early summer, and they wither away by the end of summer.  The blades of these leaves are up to two feet long and one foot across; they are medium to dark green, oval, smooth along the margins, and hairless.  The leaf blades have prominent veins, especially on their lower surfaces.

The inflorescence consists of a spadix that is surrounded by a curved spathe (which is a modified leaf); they are located near the ground.  The curved spathe is about 4-6″ long and half as much across; it tapers to a point at its apex.  The convex outer surface of the spathe is brownish-purple and often streaked with yellow and red, or spots of purple and green; this surface is smooth and hairless.  On one side, the spathe remains open to reveal an ovoid spadix about 2″ long.  This spadix is covered in all directions with small flowers, each about ¼” across.  Depending on the local ecotype, the spadix can be pale yellow to dark purple.

Thermogenic plants are also protogynous, meaning that the female part of the plant matures before the male part of the same plant.  This reduces inbreeding considerably, as such a plant can be fertilized only by pollen from a different plant.  This is why thermogenic plants release pungent carrion-like odors; to attract pollinating insects.  The bruised foliage of this plant can produce a similar odor.  The spathe soon withers away, while the spadix becomes enlarged into a compound fruit with a blocky surface.  This globelike compound fruit becomes about 4″ tall and 3″ across; it is initially green and dark purple, but later becomes dark brown or black as it disintegrates.


Skunk Cabbage is considered a magical herb.  When wrapped in a bay leaf on a Sunday, it is believed to form a talisman that draws good fortune to the bearer.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

Ingesting the plant can cause mouth pain and irritation due to the presence of oxalates.  While some sources indicate that young, cooked leaves (or those thoroughly dried) can be safe to eat, it is probably best to simply avoid ingesting any part of this plant.  Overconsumption, particularly if raw, can lead to kidney failure and even death.

Skunk Cabbage was much used by North American Indians primarily for its expectorant and antispasmodic properties to treat bronchitis and asthmatic conditions, a use that is still employed in modern herbalism.  In the 19th century (from 1820 to 1880), the United States Pharmacopoeia listed Skunk Cabbage as the drug “dracontium.”  It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism and edema.  (NOTE:  The original 1753 classification for this plant by Carl Linnaeus was Dracontium foetidum.  Known as the “father of modern taxonomy,” he was the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician who formalized binomial nomenclature as the modern system of naming organisms.)

Externally, it has been used as a poultice to draw splinters and thorns, to heal wounds and to treat headaches.  The root hairs or rootlets have been applied to dental cavities to treat toothache.  A tea made from the root hairs has been used externally to stop bleeding.  An inhalation of the crushed leaves has been used in the treatment of headaches.  The leaf bases have been applied as a wet dressing to bruises.

Wildlife Value:

The flowers are pollinated by flesh flies, carrion flies, and various gnats.  These insects are attracted by the carrion-like appearance of the inflorescence and its unpleasant odor, which is enhanced by the increased temperature that is maintained within the spathe during early spring.  Caterpillars of Ruby Tiger Moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa) feed on the foliage of this plant, but it is not exclusive to feeding on Skunk Cabbage.

The foliage is toxic and inedible to most animals because it contains crystals of calcium oxalate. However, after they emerge from hibernation during the spring, hungry American Black Bears (Ursa americana) and Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) occasionally eat the foliage, when little else is available.  White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) will eat the flowers in early spring, often consuming the spathe to gain access to the more nutritious spadix.  Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) eat the seeds.

Where Found Locally:

Welcome to Spring!

The vernal equinox will occur approximately 90 minutes before sunrise tomorrow morning.

With longer days to come, the new season will begin heralding the emergence of a myriad of wildflowers and the unfurling of tree leaves throughout our area.

Emerging False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) leaves

Other signs of spring include the chorus of Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) in wetlands, the aerial acrobatics and “dance moves” of the male Woodcock (Scolopax minor), and the return of neo-tropical migrants.

Wake Robin (yellow/green form) (Trillium erectum)

Check on the status of spring around the country.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

With those extra hours of daylight and the return of warmer weather, consider these activities as part of your adventures this spring –

Lastly, I have scheduled numerous online nature events throughout this year, including those listed above.  Please join me.

Happy trails!

I have two questions for you…

Today, I strolled along the trails at Veterans Memorial Park in the Town of Clifton Park to enjoy the beautiful sunshine on this brisk day.  As I was walking along the trail through Mooney Carrese Forest, I came upon something I’ve never seen before and, for which, I certainly have no explanation.

A Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), approximately 2-3″ in diameter, is alive and growing out of a branch cavity of an Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) whose diameter is approximately the same number of feet.

You read that correctly.

To view this anomaly, please see observation #71148998 (which also includes a photo of the location of this pair of trees along the trail) and observation #71157371 (which is a panoramic photo of the entire Yellow Birch tree) that I posted earlier today on iNaturalist.

Now, for my two questions:

  1. Where are the roots of the Yellow Birch?  (I presume they are under the bark of the pine where the bulge appears in the pine’s trunk.)
  2. How is it possible that the Yellow Birch still lives?

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?

Bonus question (for any mathematicians out there):  What are the odds of this occurring (particularly given that the Yellow Birch has been living years already!)?