One of the best parts of working on the Central Park Flora Project has been the many wonderful people with whom we get to collaborate. My last post was titled "Scavenger Hunt" and in it I included a list of species Daniel and I are still trying to locate for our project. Within a few weeks we were contacted by several of our colleagues who had spotted a few species from the list and even told us about new ones for the project!
This first species pictured below is Sisyrinchium angustifolium, narrow-leaf blue-eyed-grass. Although this native species looks like a grass, it is a perennial in the Iris family. Each plant grows to about 30cm (1 foot) or less. The flowers are small, 6mm (1/2 inch) with 3 sepals and 3 petals that are blue-violet and identical to each other. The fruit is a capsule that will split and release 3 black seeds.
We were alerted to this plant by our colleague Eve Levine. Another colleague, Richard Lieberman had shared our list with her and she remembered this plant growing in the Ramble, so she set off to relocate it. She found it growing at the base of a London Planetree at the Tupelo Meadow. It is interesting to note that this is barely a meter away from where I found this same species in 2007. So far, we have not seen this species anywhere else in the Park. Is it the same or a descendant of that individual from 2007? There is no way to know, but it is gratifying to see that the species is persisting in this unlikely location - the base of a tree on a mowed lawn.
Eve also gave us a location for Anemone virginiana. This can be found at the base of the stairs that go from the Castle to the Shakespeare Garden. This member of the Buttercup family has flowers made up of 5 white sepals, which look like petals. The seedheads you see in the photo below will eventually release a white cottany mass that will carry the seeds in the wind. Based on the notes included on the 2007 herbarium specimen, this species was collected from the same location at that time. While it may have been planted here originally, it is definitely reproducing on its own and fully naturalized.
The next two species were found by Conservancy staff John-Paul Catusco and Eric Whitaker. They found Chimaphila maculata, a member of the Heath family near Azalea Pond in the Ramble, identified it and emailed Daniel and me to see if we had it for our list yet. We did not! These are spontaneous plants, the Woodland crew has never planted this species. This is yet another species we have documented that highlights that urban parks are an important refuge for native plants.
Commonly called Spotted Wintergreen, or Spotted Pipsissewa, this perennial is native to eastern North America. It is a small plant, with leaves only 2-7 cm in length (1/2 - 2 1/2 inches) and 6-26 mm (an inch or less) in width. The plant bears white flowers which sit atop a stalk. The flowers mature to a capsule and the seeds are dispersed by the wind. Wintergreen is also a common name used for plants in the Gaultheria genus, however, Gaultheria does not have the white stripe on the leaf and it has a bright red berry-like fruit.
Because botanists identify plants by their flowers and fruit, we don't normally make an herbarium specimen without flowers or fruit (called a sterile specimen). But this was a special find so Daniel made an herbarium specimen and DNA sample using just a few small leaves.
The final species I want to share with you today is a very interesting one and one that is not often seen in Central Park. The last time I saw it was in 2009, although a handful of others have seen it more recently. We were hoping to find this for our project and thanks to Conservancy staff, we are able to include Monotropa uniflora into our list. Alex Hodges of the Woodland staff tagged me in a photo and message via Facebook announcing that he had found a population in the Ramble along the Gill. Eric Whitaker also found a population up in the North Woods along the Loch.
A member of the Heath family, Indian Pipe, or Ghost Plant is native to temperate regions of European Russia, Asia, North America and South America. Its odd appearance is due to the fact that it lacks chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is necessary for photosynthesis, so without it, a plant needs another way to get energy. This species is a parasite - it steals resources from another organism, in this case a fungus. Monotropa is what is known as a myco-heterotroph.
Many plants have symbiotic relationships with fungi. These fungi live in the soil and connect to the plant's root system. The fungus can spread through the soil and absorb water and nutrients much more efficiently than the plant roots can. But fungi are heterotrophs - they need to ingest food in order to get energy to live. Plants are autotrophs - they harvest the energy of the sun and can make their own organic molecules, such as sugars and starches. Plants and fungi form what is called a mycorrhizal association with each other (myco meaning fungus and rhiza meaning root). The fungus helps the plant get enough water and nutrients and in return, the plant shares the sugars and starches it produces with the fungus. The Monotropa parasitizes the fungus. It steals the starches and sugars and does not photosynthesize at all. Interestingly, the Monotropa specimen which is pure white in life, turns completely black on drying. Nothing can be done to preserve the white color.
Another invaluable collaborator has been Ken Chaya. Ken and his colleague Ned Barnard created the beautiful and informative map of all the trees in Central Park. Ken often accompanies Daniel and me on our forays into the Park and is able to provide us with locations and information on many interesting tree species. One of the difficulties with the tree species is trying to determine if the individuals are spontaneous or planted. Among others, Ken helped us add wild Betula lenta (Sweet Birch) from Huddlestone Arch in the North Woods to our list and we will soon be adding additional Carya (Hickory) species thanks to him.
We updated the "wanted" list and recently redistributed it. We again got a flurry of emails with sighting of plants we are looking for. You can find the list here on our project website. It is exciting not only to have such a great group of people working with us, but to know that these interesting species are persisting and even thriving in the most heavily used park in the world.