The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 6: May 20, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Special Places

Special Places: Background Exploration

The Flora of Columbia County

Columbia County has on the order of 1300 different species of wild-growing plants, more than a third of the plants currently known from the entire State of New York (New York State Flora Atlas). Two thirds of our current flora is considered native to our region, but about a third is composed of non-native plants that have been introduced within the last 400 years. Most of the introduced species come from Eurasia, but some are also from the western or south-eastern US and a few even from the tropics. Some plant species are pretty common throughout the County, for example common grasses, legumes, and “weeds” of pastures, hayfields, and roadsides. Others are quite limited to certain uncommon habitat types, such as freshwater tidal marshes, acidic bogs or outcrops of calcium-rich rocks. Beyond habitat preferences, there are also patterns of geographic affinity. Certain plant species with a generally more southern distribution occur in our county mostly along the Hudson and the lower reaches of its tributaries, and are limited to the relatively flat, western half of the county. Plants of a generally more northern affinity occur mostly in the higher elevations of the mountains in the eastern half of the county.

Most of these plants were first documented for the county by Rogers McVaugh in his “Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York”. He collected at the order of 3000 vouchers which are deposited in the State Museum in Albany, and the majority of the “historical records” of rare plant occurrences in Columbia County kept by the New York Natural Heritage Program date back to his work. His observations on habitat preferences and geographic distributions of the various plant species in our area still hold today. Beyond that, the book is also an excellent review of our county’s geology, soils, and climate, together with the resulting habitats, and biogeography of our flora.


McVaugh, Rogers: Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York. 1958. New York State Museum and Science Service. Bulletin # 360, 433p. Available for less than $10 at the New York State Museum. The book is also available in digital format through the New York State Library. (Download the index too!)


A visit with Rogers McVaugh

In the spring of 2008, we were fortunate to visit with 98 year old Dr. McVaugh at his home in North Carolina. He spoke with us about his work in Columbia County and shared his note book and photographs of that time. We were enchanted by his gentle manners, fascinated by his deep knowledge of plants and astounded by his astute memory, which allowed him to recall exciting botanical finds from “special places” more than 70 years ago. His parents had acquired a farm in Kinderhook and moved there from New York City to establish an apple orchard.  As a graduate student in Botany at the University of Pennsylvania, Rogers spent several summers exploring the wild plants of our county. Rogers’ early work in Columbia County was only the beginning of a very long botanical career which did not involve any more work in New York but focused mostly on the Flora of western Mexico.  His list of 12 books and 200 shorter articles in the history of botany, floristics and systematic botany (see complete bibliography posted by the University of North Carolina Herbarium) attests to a very active and productive professional life.

For his work in Columbia County, Rogers felt deeply indebted to the late Lyman Hoysradt, a schoolteacher and avid botanist of Pine Plains, just across our southern county line. Hoysradt’s “Flora of Pine Plains” had been published in eight parts in a series of supplements to the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club between 1875-1879. The young and old botanist met a few months before Hoysradt’s death in 1933. In his book, Rogers wrote: “it is with sincere appreciation of such a botanist of an older generation that the present study is undertaken. It is only after the careful and critical work of local students like Lyman Hoysradt that more comprehensive studies over longer periods of time can be successfully carried out.”

With the on-going Participatory Plant Surveys, we invite your participation in the current effort to build on the invaluable work of “the botanists of older generations” and to continue the documentation and monitoring of wild plant populations in our county.

What has changed?

While most of the information compiled in the “Flora of Columbia County” still sounds astonishingly true 70 years after it was written, it also provides a wonderful point of reference to document some of the changes in the county’s flora since then.

A number of the most notorious and now all-too-common invasive plants in the county had obviously not yet arrived to the area when Dr. McVaugh made his observations in the 1930’s: Japanese Barberry, Multiflora Rose, Japanese Knotweed, Japanese Stiltgrass, Oriental Bittersweet and Norway Maple are not at all mentioned in his Flora.

Tartarian Honeysuckle (which now is only one of several invasive honeysuckle species) is the only non-native honeysuckle listed and it is described as “common in cultivation, occasionally established in woods and along roadsides”. Similarly, Dame’s Rocket, which many of you know as the white, pink, or purple “Phlox” that now graces roadsides and floodplain forests, was described as “an escape from cultivation, occasional along roadsides and streams”. Garlic Mustard, which now is often considered villain #1 amongst the invasive plants, was observed only “occasionally along roadsides and in cultivated ground”. Reed Grass, or Phragmites, which now dominates many wetlands, was observed only “rarely, in calcareous marshes”. Not only were these plants still rare, there also did not yet seem to be the conditions that facilitated their rapid spreading witnessed today.

Not so with some other species now considered as invasive, which already seemed to be “on the move” 70 years ago. For example, Dr. McVaugh reported the now very common wetland plant Purple Loosestrife from the marshes along the Hudson, where it was “common and often formed dense stands”. He described it as “becoming the dominant plant over large areas” along the Hudson, but it was still “unknown away from the river except in isolated colonies”. Similarly, he described Spotted Knapweed, which by now is omnipresent on dry meadows and roadsides, as “locally abundant as a weed along roadsides and in waste grounds, apparently spreading rapidly and becoming common”. Another example is the now quite common non-native orchid Helleborine, which he found only at three locations in the county, but described as “a European species not previously reported from our area, and apparently spreading from western New York, where it is extensively naturalized”.

How about examples of plants that were once common, but –in the true sense of the word- have lost ground? Well-known examples are the beautiful Canada Lily and Ragged-fringed Orchid, which Dr. McVaugh described as “common in meadows and wet woods, especially in the Hudson Valley” and as “frequent in meadows, open fields and woods”, respectively. Similarly, the showy Cardinal Flower was “common along the margins of streams and ponds, and in wet meadows of the Hudson Valley”. Not any more! When have you last seen a Cardinal Flower or Canada Lily growing wild, outside the garden of a native plant enthusiast? Such sites still exist but they’re few and far between. We are not quite sure why these plants have become such uncommon sights. We still seem to have plenty of suitable habitat! Dr. McVaugh himself suggested that the increased nutrient input and more frequent mowing of hay meadows has not favored some of these species. This is to say, that the meadows 70 years ago might have provided a very different habitat for wild plants than meadows do today. We also have the creeping suspicion that the increased density of deer might have something to do with their demise. In plant surveys of floodplain forests, we regularly find young Canada Lily plants in the spring, but upon returning in early summer, few are ever seen in bloom and if the plants haven’t totally disappeared, they have often been browsed. Leatherwood is another example of a plant described by Dr. McVaugh as “frequent in rich moist woods”. We have so far been able to locate only a handful of places where individual plants or very small colonies of this pretty shrub grow. One of these colonies was found by deer last winter and when you see their tremendous impact on this group of 20 shrubs, it is very easy to imagine that deer could love this plant to death.

Another group of plants that has clearly diminished since the 1930’s was associated with “dry fields and hillsides” (think abandoned pastures!). Wild Indigo, Bushclover, Venus’ Looking Glass, Whorled Milkwort, and New Jersey Tea are all examples of native plants once common in dry meadows, but now hard to find because most of their habitat has since reverted to forest.


The gorgeous Wild Azalea bush, often called “Pinkster”, which sometimes was “the most abundant shrub in rocky abandoned pastureland” in the eastern part of the County, is now mostly found in the rocky forests of the higher eastern elevations, where it flowers in profusion during the month of May. Curiously, although immature individuals can be spotted in many oak-hickory forests throughout the county, they hardly ever seem to set flowers and produce seed. Could it be that deer have a hand (or mouth) in that, too?

Natural Areas of Regional or Global Significance

According to the Hudson River Estuary Wildlife and Habitat Conservation Framework", Columbia County contains four Significant Biodiversity Areas of regional importance: the Hudson River itself, the Freshwater Tidal Marshes, the Taconic Range, and the Harlem Valley. These areas house plants and animals that are rare in other parts of NY State (e.g., Timber Rattlesnake) and, in some cases, even national rarities, such as Bog Turtle or Atlantic Sturgeon. A small aquatic plant, the Hudson River Water Nymph, occurs nowhere else in the world but in the Hudson River and has recently been documented by the Natural Heritage Program in a tidal marsh in Columbia County.

5/20 column: "Columbia County's Special Places"

By Claudia Knab-Vispo

Granted, Columbia County is not the Adirondacks, designated to be “forever wild”. Nor is it Long Island with its exceptional diversity of unique plants and animals, and their desperate fate in face of relentless development. While human demands on the land here are not as overpowering as in Long Island, nature in Columbia County tends to persist in smaller, less spectacular places than in the Adirondacks. I think of a beaver pond with a Great Blue Heron rookery in a floodplain forest right at the edge of the City of Hudson, or the rare Spotted Turtles we regularly find in a wet meadow here on Hawthorne Valley Farm, or the amazing display of spring wildflowers and the repeated reports of moose tracks at No-Bottom-Pond in Beebe Hill State Forest... These are special places!

We are lucky here in Columbia County. Not only do we still have many special places, we also have a detailed description of the natural habitats that were found here 75 years ago. In the 1930s, Rogers McVaugh, a very talented young botanist whose parents were operating an apple orchard in Kinderhook, spent several summers exploring the natural areas of our county and documenting the wild-growing plants and their habitats. His description of the geology, soils, climate, and especially of the vegetation at that time were finally published by the New York State Museum in 1958, as the book “Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York”.

Imagine a young plant enthusiast driving through the County in the 1930s in his father’s model T Ford, armed with a soil map, a plant press, and a camera; and supported by the good wishes and initial suggestions of his mentor, the State botanist Homer House. When we visited Dr. McVaugh a few years ago at the age of 98, he vividly recalled how he had used the beds of recently removed railroad tracks as roads to reach interesting sites. There were no posted signs to limit his exploration of the natural world. Much of the land was still owned by farmers, people knew their neighbors and trespassing had not yet become an issue. There was much less forest than now, deer were still so rare that he never got to see one, and orchids and other wildflowers were growing in profusion on the hayfields around Kinderhook. Dr. McVaugh passed away last year only months after celebrating his 100th birthday, after a long and very productive life as a highly-regarded botany professor. Yet, his “Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York” remains our most complete source of information about the County’s wild plants to date. For each of the 1334 plant species found here in the 1930’s, the book describes the habitat (e.g., wet meadow, bog, cultivated field, dry forest, swamp, etc.) and geographic distribution (e.g., “only in Hudson Valley”, “only in the higher elevations”, “throughout”). It also provides a wonderful baseline telling us which plants were rare and which ones were common in our County.

We have several areas in the County that harbor plants and animals which are rare throughout NY State and, in some cases, even throughout the nation. However, in addition to these widely-recognized areas of broader importance, there are places in Columbia County that are ecologically unique within our County. These might be a small bog with rare dragonflies and insect-eating plants, a cold ravine with its unique flora, or a floodplain forest harboring uncommon plants such as “Green Dragon” and “False Mermaid Weed”. Dr. McVaugh’s book gives us a tool to help find such special places and to monitor and document their condition. It is our hope that learning more about how the land has changed over the past 75 years, will help us all become more conscious of how our actions today determine the landscape the next generation will be able to enjoy.

The Participatory Natural History Survey Group is beginning to put these “special places” on the map and to document their existence and condition for future generations. Participants are people who are willing to spend every other Saturday afternoon during the summer learning the wild plants and animals of our county. With the help of collaborating naturalists (Mike Pewtherer on mammals and Gary Doorman on mushrooms), we explore potential “special places” and slowly compile information about species distributions. During this summer, we plan to visit a number of the places where Dr. McVaugh had found rare or uncommon plant species. In addition to looking for these interesting plants, our group will begin to document mushrooms, butterflies, ground beetles and mammals found at each site. Often a site that harbors rare plants is also home to other biological rarities. We invite new participants, even if they are novices, as long as they are eager to learn.

Also, should you have natural history talents that complement the expertise already represented in our group and are excited to explore Columbia County’s Special Places and help others learn about our flora and fauna, please let us know!

Dr. Rogers McVaugh (30 May 1909 – 24 Sept. 2009) who, as a young botanist, explored many special places in Columbia County.

Background Exploration (cont.)

Furthermore, the New York State Natural Heritage Program maintains a registry of currently known occurrences of state-listed plants and animals, historical records, and locally significant ecological communities. The map below is not the result of an exhaustive survey and therefore certainly does not mark all the places where state-listed rare plants and animals do occur in Columbia County. However, it is a compilation of the knowledge to date and a basis for monitoring, as well as a place to add information as it becomes available.

The distribution of state- or globally rare species currently known (in red) or historically reported (pink areas) in Columbia County (New York State Natural Heritage Program).


“Special Places”

In addition to these recognized areas of state or global importance, there are many “special places” in Columbia County that might not have a wider geographic significance, yet represent unique ecological communities or species occurrences within our County. We are now compiling a first draft for a map of “special places” in Columbia County based on published information, such as McVaugh’s “Flora of Columbia County”, the Natural Heritage Program’s database, our own observations, and observations from other local naturalists. At the same time, we are drafting a list of plant species that seem to be rare or uncommon in Columbia County, drawing on McVaugh as well as the list of regionally rare and scarce plants assembled in Hudsonia’s Biodiversity Assessment Manual for the Hudson River Estuary Corridor.

One example of a rare plant for Columbia County is Canada Waterleaf, which is not uncommon in western and central New York. This species was reported in 1869 from Claverack, but was never found by Dr. McVaugh in the county, and according to the New York Flora Atlas, has never been reported from any of the neighboring counties. In 2008, Tim Biello, a summer intern with the Farmscape Ecology Program, came upon a colony of strange-looking plants on a steep hillside at the edge of Kinderhook Creek. Sure enough, he had discovered a population of Canada Waterleaf. We now consider this hillside a “special place” of Columbia County.

Another special place is the floodplain forest just at the edge of Hudson mentioned in the article. In addition to the Great Blue Heron rookery and the Beaver lodge, it is home to a large number of native floodplain forest plants, which rarely occur outside of floodplain forests and not often in such a diverse assembly. And if that were not enough, this place is also one of two places in the county where we have found the regionally rare Leopard Frog. As the name suggests, this frog is spotted (similar to the much more common Pickerel Frog). These were found basking along the shoreline of the Claverack. When disturbed, they took off in great leaps into the woods, rather than jumping into the water for safety.

Leopard Frog

Finally, to close with one of our most recent discoveries, just a few days ago, on a sunny Saturday in mid May, during an expedition to search for rare, spring-flying butterflies in the county, butterfly expert Harry Zirlin, found the first Cobweb Skipper ever to be reported from the county on a Little Bluestem meadow we had identified as promising habitat for this species. Another special place to add to the map…