If you don’t know Mike, he is retired professor of forestry at Paul Smith’s College, author of
The Catskill Forest: A History, and a preeminent expert on the Catskills. Whenever I have a chance to hike with him, I learn not only to identify different plants but also the unique stories of how they fit together in the natural environment. Our mission on this recent hike was to locate a 50-year old abandoned power line and follow it up the mountain until we could discover the original first-growth forest, which started at around 2600 feet, just above where 19th century tanners and loggers were able to reach.
European Larch – not native to New York, but planted as an ornamental. What’s distinctive about larch is that it is both a conifer and a decidious tree — meaning that unlike pines and spruces, its needles turn yellow and then fall off. When I first saw these from the highway, I stared in astonishment, as I had never before seen a conifer change color.
Marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis) — so-called because the sori (visible as dots on the underside of the leaves) are located on the edge or “margin” of each leaflet (sori contain the spores)
Black cherry tree (Prunus serotina), very common in the Catskills, notable for having “the darkest bark in the forest.” You might not see the leaves at first, because they tend to fall off earlier and then get covered up by maple and beech leaves
Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) also called crowsfoot or fan clubmoss is a form of club moss, a distant relative of ferns that also reproduces through spores.
Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) is an evergreen fern, unlike bracken or common hay-scented ferns whose leaves die off during the winter
Roots of a yellow birch tree. No, these are not aerial or stilt roots, like you might encounter in a tropical forest. The yellow birch seed first became established on a stump or fallen tree, which has subsequently rotted away. Birch seeds are very small and often unable to penetrate the dense leaf litter of the forest floor, but they do well in dead wood, which holds water and other nutrients.
Mountain fern moss
Another evergreen fern, Braun’s Holly Fern (Polystichum braunii), noted for the golden scales on the leaf stalk
Shining clubmoss (Huperzia lucidula). Sporangia containing spores nestled among leafs
Bristly clubmoss (Lycopodium annotinum) with distinctive cones on top
When the afternoon sun hits the red oak, the trees glow a deep red brown which is enough to take your breath away. Common in the valleys, the red oak is a southern hardwood that entered the Catskills when Native Americans set fires to clear the forest and European colonists cleared farms. At this time of year, the maple and beech leaves are largely gone, so the red oak stands out and you can see exactly how far up on the slopes it grows. Once you get high into the mountains, you won’t find oak.