November 20, 2009

A Walk in the Woods: Groton State Forest

Even though I live just a few miles from the large Groton State Forest, it wasn't until this past summer that I took a walk on one of the trails there. It was a short "nature trail" and wound past remarkable boulders, enormous glacial erratics. These small-cabin-sized rocks were amazing to see, and they were topped by a mass of ferns, looking like an unkempt hairdo. What a sight!

The weather had been especially beautiful this week, so a couple of days ago I went back for a walk on that trail with a friend. I was especially interested in seeing mosses and lichens because they've been so vivid lately. My friend told me that at this time of year, with leaves off the trees, there's more sunlight getting through to these tiny plants, so they are actively growing. The contrast with the dull browns of dried fallen leaves makes the living green look even brighter.

A surprise to me was how many of the mosses were different from the ones I see in the woods around my house; there are slight variations in habitat from place to place. The two mosses above mimic the look of trees, Ground Pine, and Running Cedar.

This was a very unusual lichen, looking like scraps of burnt paper, growing on the granite boulders. It may have a more greenish hue earlier in its lifespan. It's a kind of leaf-like lichen––foliose––but I couldn't find the exact name.

The large variety of tiny mosses and lichens invite close scrutiny; there's sheer pleasure in seeing the colors, from subtle variations of greens to contrasts of red and green. The small bit of growth on a fallen log becomes a vast landscape, a place of imagining.


  1. Ah! Beautiful photographs. I will venture some id's, and hope that's not obnoxious. The rock-top fern is Polypody, related to Christmas Fern. I love how it grows all over the big granite erratics, and I would like to understand more about why it only grows on rocks.
    The lichen is Smooth Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria mammulata. (Many kinds of rock tripe make a fabulous, but fugitive, magenta dye for wool.) And the ground cedar and running pine are club mosses, not closely related to the true mosses, closer to the ferns.
    The red on the log is probably a liverwort, a bryophyte like the mosses. I have a tamarack log in my woods that looks just like that, and I have been admiring it. As you say, November is a great month for all these spore-bearers!

  2. oh, Susan, not obnoxious at all. I'm very grateful to you for the identifications. I love the name "Smooth Rock Tripe", and how interesting that the red liverwort is closer to a moss than a lichen. I just ordered a book on mosses and lichens, so hope to be more informed.

  3. Beautiful! In the woods around my house in Maine, and on the wooded paths to the cove, there are amazing lichens, mosses and ferns. You are inspiring me to pay closer attention next summer ... to capture how they look and to name them.

  4. Altoon,
    You would like to have Lichens of North America, by Irwin Brodo, photographs by Sylvia Duran Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff. Yale UP, 2001. It's huge and gorgeous, and there is nothing like it. I have a large library of manuals of various groups, all more or less useful; this book is knock-out beautiful because of the photographs, which took the Sharnoffs something like ten years to take. I think as many artists as naturalists own it.
    The club mosses and horsetails are included in the excellent Peterson Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America. With those groups, you can have a small field guide with all the species you'll find. That's definitely not true of mosses, liverworts, or lichens! I've been picking away at the mosses for about six years now, spent some weeks in classes. I can id some common spp. on sight, more if I take them home to the microscopes and manuals, and others take me a half a day or more and often I have to consult my betters.Putting a name to a moss may or may not be easy. (They are stunningly beautiful magnified, too, as the leaves are only one cell thick, and the cells are brilliantly green, translucent, and fit together in wonderful patterns.)

  5. thanks for the book recommendations, Susan. I think you're a much more serious naturalist than I ever will be; I'm mostly content to gather images. I've ordered a book called "Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses" by Kimmerer, but think it's more personal essay than pure science; for that reason I thought I'd enjoy it.

  6. Oh, that's a really good book. Enjoy!

  7. I agree with Emily, you've inspired us all to look more closely. How late in the season to they grow?
    What does Susan mean:
    Many kinds of rock tripe make a fabulous, but fugitive, magenta dye for wool. Can't you try using to dye your wools?

  8. I think they grow through the winter, but I'll have to wait and see.

    When a dye is fugitive, it means it doesn't last, but fades with time. I don't use natural dyes for this reason; also, the dyes that last are rather complicated to use, as opposed to the acid dyes that I work with.