Today we walked through the south end of the Park – along the 66 street transverse, Heckscher Ballfields area, Chess and Checkers and the Pond. We were accompanied by Ella Baron. Ella manages a botanical garden in Belize and wanted to learn more about making plant collections. Also with us were Jason Leggett and Jay Wen who are working on developing a BioBlitz-type workshop at Kingsborough Community College.
At the Carousel, we found this pretty little orchid in bloom. Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is the only wild orchid that grows in the Park anymore. Unfortunately, it is not one of our native orchids and it is considered invasive in some areas. Historical records show at least two species of native orchids that have been extirpated in Central Park – rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) and slender ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes lacera ). Most people associate orchids with the tropics and don’t realize they grow in our area. New York State has approximately 60 species of native orchids, some of which are common although most are rare.
Also at the Carousel, we saw redbud (Cercis canadensis) in fruit. These pods give us a hint that this tree is in the bean family (Fabaceae). Here we see a feature that is not common in northern plants – cauliflory. The flowers and the fruit form on the woody parts of the plant rather than the soft, herbaceous parts. The photo of the blooms was taken at the Great Hill back in April.
On the wall of Dalehead Arch at West 64 street we found several Clasping Venus’ Looking Glass (Triodanis perfoliata), a North American native annual. It is often found in weedy sites with poor soil, an adaptation that allows it to survive in small crevices in a bridge wall.
At the Pond, on the North side of Gapstow Bridge are a few small stands of Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This plant is a Eurasian perennial introduced into many areas of temperate climate, probably as an ornamental since it is very lovely. However, it is an invasive plant that has become a problem in many of our wetlands. It is a prolific seeder and can spread rapidly, disrupting the flow of rivers and sharply reducing biodiversity by crowding out our native species. Reductions in plant biodiversity leads to reduced food and cover species that other organisms depend on and in this way reduce overall biodiversity.
Cattails (Typha sp., Typhaceae) are native wetland plants that can be found at the Pond and are easy to identify. The plant can reach heights of 3-6 feet with brown sausage-shaped flowers and fruit. The male and female flowers are separate, as can be seen in the photo below. Actually, this is more properly called an inflorescence since it is made up of many small flowers. The male flowers occupy the top portion and are lighter in color. If you look closely you will see many tiny stamens each producing pollen. Once the pollen is released, the male flowers wither and fall off. The female flowers are the lower part of the inflorescence and it is this part that develops into the fruit. The seeds are dispersed by white fluff carried away by the wind similar to how a dandelion disperses its seeds. Some bird species use this fluff to line their nests.
Another beautiful native we found along the shore was Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Jewelweed is an annual plant native to North America. The stems and leaves are somewhat translucent and succulent. There are several large stands of this plant throughout the park, especially in the woodlands. If you seek them out, you may be lucky enough to see hummingbirds feeding on the small orange flowers. One of my favorite things about this plant is its seed dispersal mechanism. It uses what is known as mechanical dispersal. The tissue protecting the seed is sensitive to touch and if you brush against it, it springs open and the seed is catapulted several feet away from the mother plant. This gives rise to the plant’s other common name, Touch-me-not.
We ended the day with a bit of a mystery that we hoped would be a rare plant find. Amongst a stand of Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensiblis) on the south side of the Pond, Daniel spotted a small fern that looked different from the rest. Thinking we may have stumbled upon a rare find and not wanting to collect a specimen because it was the sole individual, he sent a photo to his colleague, Robbin Moran, fern expert at the New York Botanical Garden. Robbin was excited about the photo, but for a different reason. Robbin determined that the leaf is not a rare species, but is a rare leaf form of the Sensitive fern, intermediate between the fertile and sterile leaves. No rare find for us today.