Thursday, May 16, 2024

Graves' Beach Plum

Prunus maritima f. gravesii at the University of Connecticut, May 13, 2024

For this year's Endangered Species Day I thought I'd post about Graves' Beach Plum, which is about as endangered as a plant can get without being extinct, but which is also arguably not a species. Prunus gravesii was described in 1897, based upon what was likely a single plant with multiple stems, found growing near the shoreline in Groton, Connecticut. Later authors demoted the species to a variety, and then a form, of the widespread Beach Plum, Prunus maritima, and it is now usually referred to as Prunus maritima forma gravesii

Graves' Beach Plum native range was always minute, and the wild habitat of the shrubs apparently suffered during the 20th century from development, possible herbicide use, and the spread of invasive plants. By 1998, Graves' Beach Plum was apparently completely gone from its former habitat, extinct in the wild. Some internet sources have it that the little grove of Prunus m. f. gravesii was the only shelter near a beach without facilities, and the area was used as an open air restroom so much that all the plants died, but this seems to be a fairly recently invented legend. 

Prunus m. f. gravesii is extinct in the wild, not extinct extinct, because various botanical gardens and a few private individuals maintain the plant in cultivation. The New York Botanical Garden and the University of Connecticut Botanical Conservatory have kept it going for many years, and UConn has sent plants to the Arnold Arboretum and few other gardens.

Graves' Beach Plum foliage.

Graves' Beach Plum turns out to be charming ornamental shrub for sites in full sun, near the coast or otherwise. In mid-May it is completely covered by small white flowers, which attract large numbers of  bumblebees, mason bees, and other native pollinators. The plants can be propagated with some difficulty by stem cuttings, but more easily by dividing out the suckers that sometimes grow from the roots. Grave's Beach Plum differs from typical Prunus maritima most obviously in its smaller, more rounded leaves, but the entire plant is more delicate than the usual beach plum, with thinner twigs and smaller flowers and fruit. Fruit set in Prunus m. f. gravesii is never very abundant, and it apparently needs to outcross with other Prunus maritima to set seed, so seedlings are never pure gravesii.

Flowering shoots of typical Prunus maritima (top) and Prunus maritima f. gravesii (bottom).
Reference: Klooster, M.R. et al. 2018. Resolving the taxonomic identity of Prunus maritima var. gravesii (Rosaceae) through genotyping analyses using microsatellite loci. Rhodora 120: 187-201.

Monday, May 13, 2024

The 2024 Solar Eclipse

The April 8, 2024 solar eclipse in progress, through my projector. At least one sunspot is visible off center, and maybe some dust or bugs that got onto the screen. 

I didn't manage to get to northern New England to see totality in last month's solar eclipse, but I did catch about a 93% eclipse in Connecticut, which is enough that the light got pretty dim, shadows looked sharp with diffracted crescent sun images in them, and owls started hooting. It was neat, but nothing like the show when I caught the 2017 Great American Eclipse in South Carolina.

My jury-rigged binocular solar projector, this time with improvised tripod mount and screen.

Eclipse silhouette with button-hole crescent sun image.

Tree trunk shadows with crescent sun images.

Projection of the sun close to maximum coverage.

Solargraphy camera recording the action, with binocular projector in the background.

I set up a solargraphy (sometimes spelled "solarigraphy") camera to photograph the eclipse. Solargraphy is the process of using a camera obscura--usually a homemade pinhole camera made from soda cans--to capture photographs on black-and-white print paper, with very long exposure times, ideally resulting in a ghostly image of the landscape with the sun's track visible as streaks in the sky. I'll plan on stopping the exposure around the solstice in June, and will report back with the results then. Hopefully the first, lowest daily solar track in the photo will record a dimming as the eclipse progresses, but I already know that it won't include the sun brightening as the eclipse ended, because clouds moved in shortly after the peak of the partial eclipse at my location.

Friday, April 12, 2024

39th Connecticut Cactus Show

Succulents for sale by Rick Logee.

 This weekend, April 13-14, 2024. will be the 39th annual show and sale put on by the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society. As in the past few years, the show will be at the Bristol Community Center. There will be a judged show, and a full gymnasium of vendors, including some new nurseries. Cactus Show stalwarts Jeanine and Andy Loya will not be there this year; apparently their nursery in upstate New York was seriously damaged last week in a powerful wind and snow storm, that took the metal roof off of a nearby shed, and sent it through the roof of their greenhouse. We all hope the damage is not too severe and they will be back for the 40th anniversary show in 2025!

Sales area setup in progress Friday night.

Story's Neversink Plant Company. John Story will be retiring this year, so this may be their last appearance at the CCSS show.

Some of the plants at the judged show, the night before.


Monday, March 18, 2024

Worst. Sugaring Season. Ever.

 2024 was a memorably poor maple sugaring season in Connecticut; certainly the worst since I began keeping a close eye on maple sugaring, in ca. 2010, though I'm not yet sure what the old timers are saying. I started my one tap in late January, about three weeks earlier than the traditional start time, to try to get ahead of the warm weather, but even that was probably too late. I collected maybe 8 gallons of sap by early February, brewed a few pots of maple sap tea, boiled the rest down to about 2 cups of nice light amber syrup, and that was it. The tap has been dry since the first or second week of February. All in all my total production was about what you would expect from a single decent week in what ought to be a six week season. 

 What went wrong? I have a few ideas, mostly warm-weather related:

  • It's been a really warm winter, with only a couple of weeks of snow cover, and no serious cold periods to speak of. According to NOAA data via Weather Underground, meteorological winter (Dec 2023-Feb. 2024) was the warmest on record for a large swath of the Midwest and Northeast, and near-record-warm in southern New England, with temperatures averaging about 6-8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Sugar Maples need a cold winter dormancy to stay healthy, and in particular require freezing nights and daytime thaws in late winter to trigger sap flows. 
  • The growing season last year was generally cloudy, humid and rainy. This meant less sun than usual for photosynthesis, and thus less sugar stored by the trees. The soggy summer of '23 also caused a widespread outbreak of a fungal leaf disease, Maple Anthracnose, which caused leaf drop and an early end to the growing season in late summer.  
  • 2023 was also a "mast year" for Sugar Maples, meaning that they set much more seed than usual. So, in addition to losing out on sugar-producing opportunities last year due to cloudy weather and disease, the trees were using up much more energy and nutrients than in a typical year, making tons of seeds. Excessive seed production last summer probably left the Sugar Maples with less sugar than normal stored in their trunks this winter.  
 I suspect that all of these factors were in play, with bad weather last summer, a massive "mast" production of seeds, and an overly warm winter weakening the maple trees and sending them into 2024 with less stored sugar than normal. Then, record warmth and spotty snow in January and February led to an early, brief and unproductive sugaring season. Strong El Nino climate conditions would have contributed to the warmth and storminess, against a backdrop of steady temperature rise from global warming; the fact that a mast year coincided with these factors was just bad luck. We'll see how the trees do this spring and summer. I'm hoping they will recover quickly, but the long-term outlook for species of cool northern forests, like Sugar Maple, in southern New England is probably not fabulous.


Sunday, December 31, 2023

Mt. Washington Wildflowers

Cairn on the way to the summit of Mt. Washington, NH. July 2023.
 Mount Washington is the highest mountain in New England, and infamous for the "worst weather in the world," including the highest wind speed ever recorded outside of a tornado or tropical cyclone. The strange, vast landscape of broken rocks on top of Washington and its neighboring peaks and ridges is home to a unique flora, with a mix of widespread north-temperate woodland plants, as well as rare stragglers from the last ice age, which are mostly confined to the arctic today.

Maianthemum canadense

Maianthemum canadense, the ubiquitous Canada Mayflower, grows in my lawn back in Connecticut, literally a few feet from my door, and is also common in the shelter of rocks quite near the summit of Mt. Washington. On the mountain, the plants were in bloom not in May, but in the middle of July. 

Trientalis borealis

 Starflower (Trientalis) is a common spring wildflower in my area. As with Canada Mayflower, its blooming season was delayed by about two months at high altitude in the Presidentials. I think that the chartreuse-and-black lichen on the rocks in most of these photos is Rhizocarpon geographicum, Yellow Map Lichen.

Maianthemum, with Clintonia brorealis and Chamaepericlymenum (Cornus) canadense

Shaded, sheltered slopes above treeline on Mt. Washington are also home to Clintonia and Bunchberry, two typical woodland wildflowers of northern New England. These occur south into Connecticut, but aren't common in my area. In the lowlands, these bloom a month or so later than Canada Mayflower, but their flowering seasons were all crammed together into mid-July on the mountaintop.

Phegopteris connectilis

The fern that grows closest to the summit of Mt. Washington (that I saw) was Narrow Beech Fern, Phegopteris connectilis. In southern New England, N.B.F. is a delicate little fern of cool, shady ravines and streamsides, and it was a bit of a surprise to see it near the wind-blasted peak of Washington. It was confined to seepy crevices and the shelter of overhanging rocks. Dryopteris species (Wood Ferns) started to appear at lower altitude, near tree line and in stunted alpine Balsam Fir forest, or Krummholz.

Diapensia lapponica and Sibbaldiopsis tridentata

Diapensia or Cushion-plant is one of the relictual arctic plants of Mt. Washington, growing as tight mats and mounds of leafy rosettes on fully exposed ridgelines. It is one of only two representatives of the minor family Diapensiaceae (order Ericales) that I have ever seen in person, the other being Galax, a beloved high-altitude wildflower of Appalachian peaks. Diapensia is in fruit in the photo; the white flowers are Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis, or formerly Potentilla tridentata), which was growing squeezed in between the Diapensia rosettes. Diapensia is rare in New England, growing on only the highest peaks in the far north, whereas Sibbaldiopsis is a widespread inhabitant of rocky, open hill and mountain tops.

Rhododendron groenlandicum with Vaccinium uliginosum

Labrador Tea, formerly genus Ledum but now classified as Rhododendron groenlandicum, is a shrub of the arctic tundra and wet boreal forest, that gets down into New England as a resident of alpine habitats and sphagnum bogs. The leaves have a pleasant wintergreen scent, and can indeed be used to brew an herbal tea. The photo of Labrador Tea in flower also includes a small, round-leaved blueberry relative, Alpine Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), which is another arctic shrub that persists as an alpine plant in temperate climates. Bilberry seems to be the woody plant that grows at the highest altitudes on Mt. Washington, almost all the way up to the summit.

Minuartia groenlandica

Greenland Stitchwort (Minuartia groenlandica, formerly genus Arenaria) is a tiny clumping plant that grows very close to the summit area, often in disturbed gravelly areas. Weirdly, this alpine/arctic species also apparently occurs in a few low-altitude coastal populations in Maine.

Salix argyrocarpa

Mt. Washington is home to several species of low-growing arctic willows, at the southern limits of their distributions, as well as some hybrids among them. I'm not sure that I can identify the ones that I saw from my photos, but this one is possibly Salix argyrocarpa, Labrador Willow.

Tuckerman Ravine, with one patch of snow left on July 12, 2023.

 Mt. Washington is cold enough that there is some permafrost at the top. A bit of snow remained in Tuckerman Ravine when I visited in July this year; it's difficult to get a sense of scale from the photos, but that little white spot is as big as a house. The weather was relatively mild and pleasant for the start of my hike, but the clouds closed in and the weather took a turn for the worse in the afternoon. My group, some of whom had climbed from the base at the AMC center at Pinkham Notch, got to experience a taste of the worst weather on Earth, but were very glad that I had driven my car to the summit. After taking some pics with the summit sign, with fog all around and about 20 feet visability, we crammed into the car and had an easy drive out of the arctic tundra, back down to the familiar New England woods.