Thursday, July 15, 2010

Roadside Discoveries

Last night Toby and I headed towards the river, only to be diverted onto the golf course by my conscience - I really needed to check the nestboxes to see if the baby bluebirds fledged or died in the recent heatwave. The box was empty, so they probably flew off - a relief. Just before the heatwave hit, a second box had four new eggs in it, and Monday when I checked it had four feathered chicks - they should be fledging soon, too.

So, we left the golf course, cutting across the 7th tees, and as we traipsed over the verge by the roadside, I saw it: a single spiraled stalk of flowers. Ladies tresses! I hadn't seen them along the road here since before the golf course was completed. I didn't have the camera (of course), so we turned around and headed home as quickly as the nearly solid air and an arthritic dog would allow. I grabbed my camera, hopped in the car, and drove back before the sun set.

Further investigation of the area turned up three of these delicate orchids.

The spiraling blossoms are a clue to what species it might be, but only partially. My choices were slender ladies tresses, little ladies tresses, and grass-leaved ladies tresses. Of course, at this time of the season, there are no leaves visible. This makes ID a bit more tricky.

All three species grow in dry fields and open woods, although the grass-leaved (aka: spring ladies tresses) also likes moist places.

A close inspection of the flowers held the answer. Only the little ladies tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) have upward-curling petals on the top. The upper petals on the other two are mostly horizontal.

When the golf course was put in, much of the roadside was torn up to facilitate the pipes needed for the irrigation system (bringing the water up from the river). Every year I looked for these flowers, but they seemed to be gone. The batch I found last night was in a different location from the ones I saw eight years ago, but at least they were there. I went back and checked the original location last night, just in case, but mostly it's bare soil and a few scraggly "weeds." What a joy to see these little orchids once more!

While I was there photographing the orchids, I also saw this pale blue beauty. My first fleeting thought was eyebright, but I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it because my field guides were at work. This morning as I was loading the photos into the computer, I thought "that looks more like a lobelia."

Sure enough, it's downy lobelia (L. puberula). According to Newcomb's, it's found from NJ to Illinois. So what's it doing in the Adirondacks? HM.

Update: I'm beginning to wonder about this ID. Looking through my Revised Checklist of New York State Plants, it is not one of the seven lobelia species listed. Here are my options: a) I have misidentified it, or b) I have discovered something previously not found in NYS! "A" seems like the more likely option, but just in case, I'm going to send a copy of the photos to Steve Young, NYS Botanist with the Natural Heritage Program, and see what he has to say about it. Will keep you posted.

Further Update: I returned to the roadside yesterday afternoon to re-evaluate my ID of these lobelias. Would you believe that in less than 24 hours every single one of those plants disappeared? I couldn't find any at all! I found a fourth ladies tresses, but no lobelias. It was as if something had come and removed every plant.

So, all I could do now was wait for Steve's reply. It came this morning, and his professional opinion is Lobelia inflata, Indian tobacco. I had been leaning toward spiked lobelia (S. spicata) based on what I could remember about the plant, the photos I took, and what I could ascertain from Newcomb's. On a whim, I grabbed my Audubon Wildflower book, though, and looked to see what it had to say about these plants. Based on the close-up photos of the flowers (Audubon field guides use photographs, which can often be misleading, but in this case proved helpful), I am now inclined to believe Steve. So, Indian tobacco it is!

You just never know what you will find - even in the most unlikely of places. It pays to look, even when you think the only things you'll see are the old stand-bys (daisies, vetch, St. Johnswort). Serendipity is a wonderful thing.


  1. Ooh, great find, those Ladie's Tresses! The lobelia is pretty, too. How big were the flowers? Just at a glance, I would have thought Spiked Lobelia or Indian Tobacco. If it had fat little pouches where the flowers were spent, it would be the latter. But it looks quite spiked. Hard to judge without seeing the whole plant and knowing the size of the blossom.

  2. I'm leaning toward "spiked" myself, Jackie. I've sent them off to Steve - he'll probably laugh at my thought they were downy (the stem IS hairy!!!). I'm leaving early this afternoon because I have to come back tonight, so my first stop before I get home is at these plants. I'm taking a ruler and will fondle the leaves and everything to make sure that I am wrong (which wouldn't surprise me). Will let you know!

  3. Serendipity IS a wonderful thing. Golf courses...not so much! Beautiful close-ups.