Where, When to Find the Rare Bloodroot

By Mike Adamovic, Trail Conference volunteer

Bloodroot. Photo credit: Mike Adamovic

Bloodroot, featuring ivory petals surrounding a bright, golden center, is one of the earliest wildflowers to be awakened each spring. (Photo credit: Mike Adamovic)

Quickly after the last of the winter snow has dissipated and a flattened, tawny earth emerges to greet the first rays of the spring sun, certain streamsides and other moist areas throughout our region find themselves covered once more with a dense layer of white. This time the cloak originates from beneath the newly warmed ground, rather than the upper reaches of the chilled atmosphere. Bloodroot (Saanguinaria canadensis) is an uncommon spring ephemeral whose ivory petals surround a bright, golden center. It’s one of the earliest wildflowers to be awakened by even the most minimal of April heat, eager to bask in the untapped reserve of sunshine now flooding every nook and cranny of the understory.

As the name implies, these plants do indeed possess crimson roots. Moreover, this species bleeds the same as any injured animal. A broken leaf or stem will cause the plant to exude a fluid alarmingly similar to blood. It stains anything it touches, and has been used in years past as a dye by both Native Americans and colonists.

Additionally, root extracts have historically been used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from cancer to lung disease to sore throats. And up until recently, it was even employed as an ingredient in Viadent toothpaste to combat gum disease and the build-up of plaque. At the moment, though, the efficacy of bloodroot on anything health related is dubious at best. Numerous sources relate that the root is toxic, and even coming in contact with its juices can cause dermatitis, similarly to poison ivy. It’s hard to believe it was ever consumed—the root’s taste is so acrid that a minor quantity can induce vomiting. Some concoctions were once made more palatable by adding copious quantities of sugar. This is probably one plant that should be appreciated by sight alone.

When it comes to habitat, these plants prefer moist, rich soils, having an inclination to grow along gently sloping banks. More often than not, they will be found along some type of water body, be it a river, lake, or even a temporary rivulet born of snowmelt. While one of the loveliest flowers of the early spring, it also lives up to the category of wildflowers it’s grouped into exceedingly well (spring ephemerals). Trying to locate an intact specimen requires razor-sharp precision, time-wise. With flowers usually lasting no more than a few days, it certainly is imbued with a fleeting nature. Plants will only produce a single blossom, which once lost, will not attain another until the following spring. Typical bloom dates are from mid-April to early May.

Like many other spring ephemerals, bloodroot uses ants as a means of seed dispersal, a technique known as myrmecochory. Each tiny seed is equipped with a lipid-rich appendage called an elaiosome. This tempting morsel entices ants to transport the seed back to their nest where they remove the elaiosome and discard the seed body in waste pits that provide an enriched medium for growth. In this way, bloodroot is able to colonize new locales away from the parent plant and ensure optimal germination.

Usually found in small groups or clusters, large colonies can develop, containing in excess of several hundred individuals, the result of vegetative propagation, another form of reproduction which produces clones by extension of the rhizomes, or roots.

With bloodroot awakening much sooner than other plants, the large blossoms, as well as the glaucous, almost succulent leaves, create a striking scene among the withered foliage and broken stems of last year’s growth. A particularly large, showy grove is easily spotted at a considerable distance and visually eclipses other ephemeral populations that attain a similar size. There’s something entrancing and fairy-like in the demeanor of these uncommon flowers, with their unique ability to pop up seemingly overnight, transforming the landscape like magic. Such vigor and color contrasts greatly with the bleak debris that surrounds, creating an image of surpassing beauty that’s sure to be emblazoned in memory and sought out year after year.

Mike Adamovic works at One Nature, LLC and also manages his photography business, Adamovic Nature Photography.

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Improving the Long Swamp Trail, One Hike at a Time

Eagle Scout could earn another prestigious Hornaday Conservation Award for his efforts combating invasive species in Sterling Forest

By Zachary Kunow, Trail Conference volunteer

Zack, his troop, friends, and family have all pitched in to improve the Long Swamp Trail.

Zack, his troop, friends, and family have all pitched in to improve the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

I am a 16-year-old Eagle Scout with Boy Scout Troop 21 of Suffern, N.Y., and have been a member of the Trail Conference for the last three years. My Eagle project was to build a 60-foot bridge over a stream on the Long Swamp Trail, a 3.2-mile loop in Sterling Forest State Park. As a result, you can now hike the Long Swamp Trail year-round, not just when the stream is frozen over.

This was a great project, and I really enjoyed working on it—so much, in fact, that my troop and I adopted the trail and have been maintaining it for the last two years. The troop takes at least four hikes on the Long Swamp Trail each year, and my family and friends hike it many other times as well. I’ve noticed that after all the improvements to the trail, its popularity and usage has increased significantly.

Bridge on the Long Swamp Trail (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

The bridge Zack and his crew built on the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

Since completing the bridge, I have set my sights on earning the Hornaday Conservation Award, one of the many awards you can earn even after you’ve attained Eagle, the highest rank in Boy Scouts. This is a very prestigious award—each medal is only earned by approximately a dozen scouts per year. And I am now one of those scouts!

One of the duck boxes Zack constructed. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

One of the duck boxes Zack constructed. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

There are three levels to the Hornaday Conservation Award. The first level is the Hornaday Badge, which requires the completion of one conservation project. The project must be equivalent to, or can even be, your Eagle project; I worked on a recycling project to earn the Badge. The next level of the Award is the Bronze Medal. This requires three conservation projects in different categories. My recycling project, Eagle project, and a third project making wood duck boxes that were positioned in key areas of Sterling Forest have earned me the Hornaday Bronze Medal.

The Gold Medal is the highest conservation award that can be earned in Scouting. To earn this medal, a fourth project in yet another area of conservation must be completed. In considering another project, I looked to the Trail Conference. I knew that the Trail Conference had an Invasives Strike Force headed by Dr. Linda Rohleder, and I decided to reach out to her to discuss a project on the Long Swamp Trail involving invasives. In partnership with park officials, we agreed on a plan to remove six invasive species: Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, wineberry, Oriental bittersweet, garlic mustard, and Japanese stiltgrass. I would lead the project; work would be completed with the help of my troop, family, and friends.

Invasives are crowding out many native plants and are changing the landscape in Sterling Forest. Japanese barberry and multiflora rose are becoming more and more prevalent in the park and on the Long Swamp Trail, which is one of the main reasons why I chose to work on invasive species. To tackle this project, I set up a workshop with Dr. Rohleder to train my troop on the identification and proper removal of these invaders. During our training session, Dr. Rohleder provided me with descriptions and pictures of each species so they could be properly identified on the trail. I laminated these identification guides so they could be reused each time we went on a hike. These turned out to be very helpful—there were times when the first person on one of our hikes missed a plant, but one of the other spotters would see it. (We found that there were “missed” invasives almost every time we went on a hike.)

I planned to have several hikes in the spring and fall so that we could identify as many invasives as possible. Garlic mustard is best seen in the spring when it is flowering. Japanese stiltgrass is easiest to identify in the summer as it gets taller. I found it easier to identify the other invasives after “leaf-out.” It was even easier later in the summer when plants were mature and sometimes flowering.

Zack and his team removed invasives along the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

Zack’s invasives team made five trips along the Long Swamp Trail, removing 250 Japanese barberry, 125 multiflora rose, 35 wineberry, 25 Oriental bittersweet, two large patches of garlic mustard, and many patches of Japanese stiltgrass. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

The initial plan was to walk the trail and identify each invasive sighting, capturing the GPS coordinates, then go back to the locations at a later date and remove the plants. We soon discovered that it was easier to remove the invasives as we identified them. Once removed, these plants were placed on rocks or hung in trees so that they could dry out and die. This way, we wouldn’t contaminate another area by taking the invasives outside of the park.

In total, my invasives team went on two hikes in the spring and three in the fall. We used several different tools for the invasives removal, including ratcheting clippers to trim large plants like barberry and multiflora rose lower to the ground. To get to the roots, we found a small pickaxe to be the most useful. For stiltgrass and garlic mustard, we mostly did manual pulling, which was time consuming. A four-pronged rake made this work a little easier—and with less bending. We used the pickaxe on the wineberry and the ratcheting clippers on the bittersweet.

During of our five trips tackling invasives along the Long Swamp Trail, we removed approximately 250 Japanese barberry, 125 multiflora rose, 35 wineberry, 25 Oriental bittersweet, two large patches of garlic mustard, and many patches of Japanese stiltgrass. As a result, the trail is now more esthetically appealing. It will also allow for native plants to survive and flourish, since they will not have to compete with the invasives.

The impact of this project has been significant—even after those first spring hikes, we could notice an improvement. I plan on making the invasives program part of my troop’s normal trail maintenance on the Long Swamp Trail. This will allow us to keep on top of invasives species management along the trail and give native plants time to grow back.

Zachary Kunow is currently completing his junior year at Suffern High School and starting to think about college. The conservation work he’s done with the Boy Scouts and the Trail Conference has whet his appetite to study environmental engineering. He is on the varsity volleyball, swimming, and crew teams at Suffern; he’s hoping to row in college. In addition to his Scouting background, Zachary is a member of the Fire Explorers, which is run by the Boy Scouts of America. He has also recently joined the Tallman Fire Department.

If you’d like to learn more about combating invasive species with the Trail Conference, visit the Invasives Strike Force page on our website, or email Linda Rohleder.

Posted in Hikes, Invasive Species, New York Trails, Profile, Science, Sterling Forest, Trails, Volunteering, West Hudson Trails | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Stay Away from the Woods”: Countering the Idea that Nature Is Unsafe for Our Kids

By Hank Osborn, Senior Program Coordinator

What messages are our children receiving about exploring the outdoors, and how will they affect future efforts to protect our environment?

Hank's son, Knox, loves exploring the outdoors.

Hank’s son, Knox, loves exploring the outdoors.

My wife and I try to get our young ones outside as much as possible. We experience a great sense of satisfaction and a feeling that we are doing something right when we see our children enjoying nature. We love watching them hike through the woods or play in a stream or simply skip down a trail. We feel it’s educational to allow them to explore the outdoors and their surroundings. We know that our views are not shared by all parents, but to be honest, it seems strange to us that some parents’ positions appear to be the exact opposite of ours.

We’ve been witness on several occasions to parents actually scolding their children for getting close to nature. “Stay away from the woods! Be careful, there are wild animals in there. There are bears; there are snakes.” Many, many times we have overheard, “Don’t go in the grass, you’ll get dirty.”

It seems that some parents think it’s easier, cleaner, and safer if their kids stay indoors and out of the woods.

Yes, it is harder to keep an eye on children when they’re outside. Supervision can be much easier indoors where children can’t wander away and get into trouble out of sight. It seems that some parents feel safer when their children of all ages sit inside all day and play on their screens and devices—iPods, phones, tablets, video games, TV. Not only are these parents not pushing their kids outside, they are actually encouraging their children to stay indoors—because it’s easier.

Kids can get dirty outside, absolutely. It is a pain, and it can be expensive if they ruin their clothes. Some parents seem to want very badly to keep their kids clean—and their children are listening. My neighbor told me that he understands his son’s aversion to time outside. “He won’t play outside because he doesn’t want to get his shoes dirty,” he says.

Knox exploring the outdoorsKids can get sick or hurt outside, sure. But don’t forget that they can get hurt indoors, too. Parents today are scared, but maybe it has to do with the way the world is ruled by the media. They are afraid that their kids will get hurt or get Lyme disease or get lost or abducted. We have neighbors who won’t let their kids go outside because they are afraid of bees—year-round!

Although many parents don’t encourage their children to go out at all, there are parents who do recognize that outdoor time for kids is a good thing. One time a parent asked me, “How do you do it? How do you get your kids to play outside? Mine just want to sit inside all day.” It’s not always easy, but we try to lead by example.

Exploring the outdoors is foreign to some of today’s youth as kids are becoming more and more disconnected from nature. Some public schools are now offering “forest preschool” programs in an attempt to counter children’s lack of natural experiences. We think this is great, but it is also sad that the inability of parents to encourage outdoor play has reached a level that requires the schools to introduce children to nature.

According to Richard Louv, child advocacy expert and author of Last Child in the Woods, “Never before in history have children been so plugged in-and so out of touch with the natural world.” Many, many children are not connecting with nature. They are not understanding the outdoors the way past generations have. Is the future of humankind changing? Our relationship with nature is changing. Could the consequences be dire?”

By not being in touch with the outdoors like our ancestors or our parents or ourselves, children are losing contact with the natural world. If the youngest generation’s relationship with our planet is changing, will the movement to protect our planet be affected? Will no connection equal no protection? If they are not connected to nature as children, how will they feel about protecting the environment and our natural resources as adults?

The Trail Conference’s tagline is “Connecting People with Nature.” We work to improve public access to open space. I want to think that the trends we’re seeing with some of today’s youth are reversible. We must continue our efforts to get more children and their parents outside. We must work to further advance natural experiences by finding ways to deliver easy access to parks and preserves. Children and their parents need to play in the woods. Let’s make it happen.

If you’d like to give back to trails or get your family involved in building, maintaining, and protecting trails for future generations, check out our volunteer opportunities.

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Bird Count at Closter Nature Center Reveals More Than a Dozen Species

By Steve Kelman, Trail Walker Contributor

Downy Woodpecker (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

Downy Woodpecker (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

On what may prove to be one the coldest days of this winter season, a small group of birding enthusiasts gathered at the cabin in front of the Closter Nature Center to take part in the Bergen County Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.

After a spate of unusually warm December weather, the mercury took a nosedive on this particular Saturday morning (Dec. 19) as this assemblage took to the Center’s nature trails in an effort to learn about and identify resident birds and waterfowl as part of the Audubon Society’s 67th annual event. More than a dozen species of birds were identified on our walk, which took us through a mix of wetlands and woodlands and around two ponds located within the Nature Center property: Ruckman and the “Hockey,” or Second Pond.

Screech Owl (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

Screech Owl (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

A highlight of the morning was getting a rare opportunity to view a screech owl as it rested (trying not to be seen, I’m sure) in an exposed tree stump along the Center’s Fern Trail. A serious effort was required to see this very small owl due to the fact that it perfectly blended in with its environs. Among the other bird species observed on our walk were tufted tit mouse, white breasted nuthatch, kingfisher, mallards, mourning doves, grackle, black capped chickadee, cardinal, downy and red headed woodpeckers, a pair of turkey vultures, and a red tail hawk. Some of these birds also were seen at feeders located near the cabin and Nature Center parking lot.

In addition to the numerous bird species, other wildlife was also observed on this outing. A group that took a separate trail spotted a coyote from what was, they said, “a safe distance.” And then there were others who watched “a floating log” on Ruckman Pond; that log was none other than a resident muskrat fishing for his breakfast.

 House Sparrow, left, and House Finch (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

House Sparrow, left, and House Finch (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

The Christmas Bird Count took place throughout Bergen County. The objective was “to count all birds within a 15-mile diameter circle centered at the River Edge train station,” according to information in the Bergen County Audubon Society’s Newsletter, The Blue Jay. The official count period was from December 16 through 19; more than 80 species of birds were identified, Bergen County Audubon President Don Torino said.

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Registration Now Open for April 15-17 Dry Stone Wall Workshop at Trail Conference Headquarters

Photo simulation of the dry stone wall to be built at Trail Conference Headquarters this spring. (Photo credit: Brian Post)

Photo simulation of the dry stone wall to be built at Trail Conference Headquarters this spring. (Photo credit: Brian Post)

Registration is now open for the first of two freestanding dry stone wall workshop weekends scheduled to take place at Trail Conference Headquarters in Mahwah, N.J, this spring. These workshops, held in partnership with The Stone Trust from Dummerston, Vt., will take place at our new HQ at the historic Darlington Schoolhouse April 15-17 and May 28-30. The third day of each course is optional to learn about worksite prep and management. All skill levels are invited to participate.

The purpose of these workshops is to to construct a dry stone wall along the front of our new HQ at the historic Darlington Schoolhouse and expose the art and craft of dry stone walling to the larger Trail Conference community and our partners. Our thanks goes to Ramapo College of New Jersey, which has donated local fieldstone for the project, and Legacy Stoneworks, Inc. / The Hillburn Granite Company, Inc., which has donated quarried stone for the wall.

Our partner in this project, The Stone Trust, advocates for the preservation of existing dry stone walls and promotes using the correct structural standards for the construction and restoration of dry stone walls. The instruction for this workshop will be led by three of the top Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA-GB) Certified Dry Stone Walling Instructors in North America.

We’ll be updating this blog, as well as our calendar of events and Trail University page, throughout the winter with news on these workshops, registration details for the May courses, and more. Stay tuned… and don’t forget to register for the April courses today!

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A Closer Look at Snow Fleas

By Hope Rogers, Trail Walker Contributor

Snow Fleas

Although we rarely notice them, snow fleas are all around us on the forest floor, performing their crucial role in the food chain. (Photo credit: Angie Oliver, Packbasket Adventures, Wanakena, NY)

On a bright winter day, have you ever noticed what look like specks of dark soot in the snow, especially at the base of trees? And then, upon closer inspection, the “specks” are crawling and jumping? What are those things?

Those minuscule, lively creatures are a type of springtail, Hypogastrura spp., commonly known as snow fleas. They’re actually with us all year long, and in huge abundance. They can be found throughout the forest, living in leaf litter, in moss and fungi, and around ponds. They even walk on water, their light bodies supported by the water’s surface tension. However, without the white background of snow, their tiny dark bodies, approximately 1/16 of an inch long, are rarely noticeable.

Snow fleas, like fleas, are tiny jumpers. However, they aren’t fleas or even flea relatives. Fleas are parasitic insects; snow fleas are wingless arthropods that never use human or animal hosts. Snow fleas’ jumping mechanism is also different from fleas, which propel themselves upward on powerful legs and toes. Snow fleas have two forked tails, or “furcula,” that they hold folded under them. When they release the hook-like structures that hold the furcula in place, the tails “spring” out, propelling the tiny creatures willy-nilly into the air.

Snow fleas are an important link in the forest food chain. They are decomposers, consuming decaying plant material in the soil, breaking down nutrients into forms that plants can take up. In late winter or early spring, they sometimes form huge colonies, as wide as a yard, devouring the algae that grow on wet, decomposing leaf litter in the melting snow. They are also eaten by slightly larger creatures, including salamanders, daddy long-legs, beetles, and centipedes.

One thing snow fleas must have is moisture. They breathe through their skin rather than through a respiratory system, which makes them vulnerable to drying out. So they move around in search of moist, sheltered locations. Every spring, springtails mate, and the females lay eggs in the soil. Tiny springtail nymphs emerge from the eggs and begin to grow, repeatedly molting their exoskeletons. By winter they have developed into the mature creatures we see in snow.

Snow fleas and other springtail varieties possess a rare characteristic: they make their own “anti-freeze,” a protein that prevents ice crystals from forming in their cells. This recently discovered protein is unlike other known proteins; scientists are studying its structure in the hope of using it in applications such as safely chilling human organs destined for transplant, and perhaps for producing ice cream that never develops ice crystals. Protected by their “anti-freeze,” snow fleas venture out on sunny winter days in search of decaying plant matter and sap oozing from trees.

Although we rarely notice them, snow fleas are all around us on the forest floor, performing their crucial role in the food chain. Look for them on sunny, snowy days, especially in late winter and early spring.

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Dry Stone Walling Workshops to Be Held at Trail Conference Headquarters This Spring

Dry Stone Wall Workshop

We’re partnering with The Stone Trust for two workshops to construct a dry stone wall along the front of our new headquarters and promote the art of the craft. (Photo credit: Kevin Simpson)

This spring, the Trail Conference will be offering two freestanding dry stone wall workshops at our headquarters in Mahwah, N.J. The purpose of these workshops is to expose the art and craft of dry stone walling to the larger Trail Conference community and our partners, as well as to construct a dry stone wall along the front of our new HQ at the historic Darlington Schoolhouse.

These two-day workshops will take place at Trail Conference headquarters April 15-17 and May 28-30. The third day of each course is optional to learn about worksite prep and management. All skill levels are invited to participate.

Our dry stone wall workshops are a partnership between the Trail Conference and The Stone Trust from Dummerston, Vt. The Stone Trust advocates for the preservation of existing dry stone walls and promotes using the correct structural standards for the construction and restoration of dry stone walls.

We’ll be updating this blog, as well as our calendar of events and Trail University page, throughout the winter with news on workshop cost, registration details, and more. Stay tuned!

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