June 8, 2014

Searching for rare treasure on Valcour Island

Botrychium, Sanicula, Osmorhiza and Lathyrus. These words sound like the names of obscure literary villains.

But actually they are the genus names of some of the many remarkable plants that live on Valcour Island.

They aren’t as common as the trillium and trout lilies most people recognize — you have to work a little harder to find and identify this group. 

This week a group of botanists including members of the SUNY Plattsburgh faculty, the Adirondack Botanical Society and the New York Flora Association took a close look at Valcour Island, one of the sites with the most number of rare plants in New York state.

Beginning at the Valcour Conference Center, 16 participants were ferried to the island by staff from the Lake Champlain Research Institute.

From the beach south of the Bluff Point Lighthouse, the group trekked south along the trail that follows the perimeter of the island.

The sandy beach itself was covered with the pretty white flowers of Little False Solomon Seal, and there began a day of extreme satisfaction for the treasure-seekers.

Botanists frequently find themselves in beautiful places, but good botanizing requires some degree of shutting out the distractions of bird calls, animal sign and gorgeous scenery to dial in the micro-habitats that lead to truly rare plant finds.

The purpose of the group this week was not specifically to add to the inventory of the 400 or so known species.

We were there to document that one special rare species still lives on Valcour — the Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium arietinum.

Uncommon finds throughout the morning kept the level of excitement high.

Morel mushrooms and 100-year-old rock buildings and beautiful cedar groves lured us through the landscape. 

Rachel Schultz, wetland plant specialist from SUNY Plattsburgh, discovered a piece of a huge heron eggshell — an unavoidable and very cool distraction from the plant material. 

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