Monday, September 16, 2013

Beginners Natural History Course with Ruth Schottman & Friends (Updated 9/16/13 evening)


Last Wednesday, I started my first ECOS class on late summer wildflowers and other interesting things that grow in the woods and fields in these parts.
We started off indoors, looking at some plants that our instructor, Ruth Schottman, had brought in. The picture above shows an "earth star", a type of  puffball soil fungus. When dry, it is all closed up tight like a button. Shown here after a soaking, it opened up to develop springy, leather-like "legs" that can actually help propel the fungus to a new location. Pretty cool.
This evening, I received this note from instructor Ruth Schottman, in response to my request for corrections on this blog post if any were needed:
 You get an A plus, plus- great photos; I only offer one correction – the earth star actually travels when it is tightly rolled up, ball-like and wind propels it; when it is moist it stands up on its “legs” waiting for rain drops or some other agent to touch its exposed organ which then discharges spores through the hole on top.
Thank you, Ruth!

 Ruth had also brought in ferns for us to examine with our jeweler's loupes,  a key aid to plant identification, we learned. We looked at two types of wood ferns, then a glade fern and a maidenhair fern.

 We practiced using the key in Newcomb's Wildflower Guide and learned about leaf types.

 Bingo! Pink Turtlehead. (Since this actually grows in my own garden at home, this was the one plant I was absolutely certain of.)

Last Wednesday turned out to be a scorcher, but we left the community center for a while to explore the un-mowed edges of the park.

 Ruth showed us a patriotic trio of red, white and blue fruits on shrubs and vines near by:
Panicled dogwood.

Wild grapes.


We also saw the black fruits of Buckthorn, an invasive species.

 Ruth taught us about heterostyly in Purple Loosestrife. Charles Darwin wrote about such plants, having observed three different flower types within the same species. This appears to encourage cross-pollination.

 We looked at two varieties of sumac: Staghorn, above, and smooth sumac, below.

We observed an autumn dandelion to look at basal leaves and one type of composite flower: plants with strap florets only.
 We looked at yellow jewelweed and tasted its nutty seeds.

 These next two flowers look alike but they are not related. Above is an aster, the exact variety of which we couldn't pin down. (There are over fifty varieties of aster in the eastern United States.)

 This similar-looking flower is quite another species altogether. This a fleabane, a Lesser Daisy Fleabane, to be precise.

 And here was another plant I now recognize: White Snakeroot. This plant once indirectly caused many deaths. Cows that graze on snakeroot pass a toxin into their milk, Ruth told us. This causes "milk sickness". Years ago, people didn't know what the source was. Abe Lincoln's mother died of milk sickness.
 On a cheerier note, here is the bright purple New England aster, so noticeable along roadsides in autumn.

 And our last plant of the day, a White Wood Aster.

This week we will be off to visit the Woodlawn Preserve in Schenectady. I have my field guide, I have my loupe, I have paper, pen, and camera: I am rarin' to go!