By Nellie and Anna
Today’s Wonder Wander is a little different—it is the first in a series of self-guided Wonder Wander walks installed in different habitats and public recreation areas in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy. As such, you can see the photos and text in-person (in front of the wonders) if you visit the Hemlock Forest at the Harris Conservation Area from now until January 11th. For those of you who have received our year-end appeal gift of the Wonder Wander Journal, this also reflects the December “Hemlock” habitat. Find out more about our upcoming self-guided Wonder Wander walks and how to get a digital or hard copy of our Wonder Wander Journal at: hvfarmscape.org/wonder.
Enter evergreen clubmosses—ancient plants, and close relatives of ferns! Here is a prickly clubmoss, likely Eastern Tree Clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).
Elsewhere on the trails you’re bound to find the flattened-looking Southern Ground Cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum), among others. In the spring, look for their spore cones that stick straight up! Spores from the Diphasiastrum and Lycopodium genera of clubmosses are dried into powder and used for a variety of purposes—one being to create flashes and flames in magic and theatrical special effects! For more on clubmosses at Harris, see Kenny’s November 11th Wonder Wander (this photo is courtesy of Kenny from that Wander).
Ferns, being shade tolerant plants, find themselves very at home in Hemlock Forest, though they often congregate around breaks in the dense canopy. Here you see the dark green fronds of Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), one of our two common, native, evergreen ferns.
Here you see the lacy fronds of Evergreen Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia), the other common, native, evergreen fern in our area. Why might a fern want to remain green into the winter rather than drop its fronds? This gives the fern more time to photosynthesize into the fall and very early in the spring. In deep winter, photosynthesis halts and evergreen ferns store sugar in their leaves, which acts as an antifreeze to protect the fronds during harsh temperatures.
If you explore this stream, and you may find a surprise…
Nodules of manganese rest like small rocks beneath the water—and point to one possible explanation for how the adjacent human-made pond ended up here, far from the farmstead.
An 1843 New York geological report notes that a deposit of manganese oxide (“box manganese”) was discovered in a marsh on the Gott Farm, now part of the Harris Conservation Area. The deposit was mined by digging “to the depth of five of six feet,” though this operation was soon abandoned. Manganese was used for staining glass among other industrial processes. Is this pond the result of that 19th century mining for manganese oxide? (Photo by Conrad)
The pale, shallow roots you see reaching out in all directions belong to Yellow Birch. This tree is not always associated with Hemlock Forests—and in fact is more often found in more northern hardwood forests—but it can find a home in the moist soil of cooler microclimates like this one.
Hemlocks and Yellow Birch share several characteristics that help explain their comingling. In Columbia County, they are both associated with “ancient forests” that were never completely cleared for agriculture, and they also have shallow, horizontal root systems—a useful trait in boggy soil where deep roots could be drowned. This Hemlock is demonstrating just how shallow its root system can be by growing on top of a rock.
A Hemlock seed cone. Hemlocks develop male (pollen) and female (seed) cones on the same tree. After seed cones ripen in the fall, they disperse their winged seeds (located within the cone scales) throughout the winter, with the cones opening to release seeds during dry periods and closing again when wet or during high humidity.
By comparison, here are male pollen cones on a Hemlock tree at Harris captured this spring. (Photo by Conrad)
Hemlock cones are one of the smallest conifer cones (here next to a pine cone). It can take anywhere from a couple of decades to hundreds of years for a Hemlock tree to produce its first cones, depending on how dense the shade cover. Once mature, they often produce abundantly—though few seeds ultimately make it through the gauntlet of predation and unfavorable conditions to become trees.
Stone walls can tell us a story about the land and its historical use. On the west side of this stone wall is a mature Hemlock Forest. Being that the rocky terrain is less suitable farmland, this area was likely never plowed. Even small Hemlock trees can be very old!
The east side of the stone wall, by contrast, is more open, with earlier successional trees including Birch. This area was likely once plowed and used as farmland.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a native, understory shrub, found in a variety of woodland habitats, including Hemlock Forest. Unlike other deciduous plants which flower in the spring and summer, Witch Hazel just recently flowered in late fall. On this twig you can see early fruits that will develop in the spring and ripen by next fall. As the flowers bloomed, seeds from fruits pollinated last year were simultaneously and explosively dispersed.