19 July 2012
Our walk down the upper portions of the Heron Marsh Trail provided an opportunity to observe a mixed hardwood and conifer habitat. We examined three of the most common confers which grow in this habitat.
Balsam Fir is a member of the pine family. It is well known for its fragrant needles which are used for making balsam pillows. Balsam branches were also used by Adirondack guides to line lean-tos, to make a soft aromatic bed and to repel insects (thanks to the resins in the tree). The needles of the Balsam Fir are flat and soft, not spiky, and are shiny green above with two silvery lengthwise lines on the underside. Balsam Fir is a popular Christmas tree, because it holds its needles well after cutting.
Also growing on the upper portions of the Heron Marsh Trail are Eastern White Pine. These large conifers have much longer (three to five inch) soft needles, growing five per cluster. Each needle is flexible and triangular in cross section. The resin of the White Pine provides protection against insects. On the left side of the Heron Marsh Trail (about a five minute walk from the start of the trail) is a very large White Pine, estimated to be about 150 years old.
Red Spruce trees also grow along the Heron Marsh Trail. Another member of the pine family, this medium-sized tree has a single straight trunk and stiff, pointed needles that appear to be round, but actually are four-sided. The needles are positioned all around the stem and (in contrast to the Balsam Fir) are prickly and uncomfortable to grasp. Red Spruce is an extremely important commercial tree species. The wood is strong and straight grained and has been used to make lumber.
Hardwood trees along the Heron Marsh Trail include the Red Maple. This tree flourishes on the edge of a marshy habitat because it prefers wet to moist soils. The light green leaves of the Red Maple are three-lobed, with shallow notches in between the lobes and a double-toothed margin. The common name of the plant is derived from the red leaf stalks and also the fact that the tree turns red in fall. The sap of the Red Maple is less sugary than that of the Sugar Maple. The latter has five-lobed leaves and grows in rich moist soils in upland areas. It is a major source of maple sugar.
The prevalence of pine trees in the upper portions of the Heron Marsh Trail create acidic soil, where acid-loving plants like blueberries flourish. Wintergreen grows in profusion along the Heron Marsh Trail. This low-growing Adirondack wildflower has a waxy, evergreen leaf, which produces a wintergreen flavor when chewed. The plant produces tiny, white flowers, which bloom in July. These are followed by a red berry, which is also edible and said to be loaded with Vitamin C. We also observed Shinleaf, Spreading Dogbane, Indian Pipe, and Dewdrop in bloom, as well as Helleborine Orchid (which was budding). Bunchberry grows in profusion along the path; this plant (which is related to dogwood) had bloomed earlier in the summer and was now producing bright red fruit. Canada Mayflower also flourishes here. Its white flowers had faded and the plant was producing berries, which will eventually turn bright red. Like many plants, these Adirondack wildflowers were about two to three weeks early, due to the mild winter and warm temperatures in spring.
The Heron Marsh Trail has a series of viewing platforms and an overlook which provide access to Heron Marsh. Plants which flourish on the edge of the marsh are related to rhododendrons and include Leatherleaf, Meadow Sweet, Steeplebush, and Sheep Laurel. Tamaracks, also known as the Eastern Larch or American Larch, also grow in the transition areas. Tamaracks are coniferous tree, but -- in contrast to other conifers, which are evergreen -- tamaracks shed their needles in the fall. In spring, the tree produces new apple green needles, which gradually become darker toward late spring.
Heron Marsh itself is one of several different types of Adirondack wetlands on the VIC property. It is home to aquatic plants, including the White Water-lily and Pickerelweed. The latter blooms in profusion in the shallower areas of the marsh. Also blooming on the marsh are Yellow Pond Lilies. The North American River Otters who live on the marsh feed on fresh water mussels and clams. Heron Marsh is also home to several families of beaver. There are two beaver lodges on the marsh -- one on the northern side of the marsh (which can be observed from the Barnum Brook Trail) and another on the southern side (which can be observed from the Heron Marsh Trail.)
One of the highlights of the walk was an excellent view of a Great Blue Heron on the marsh. This majestic blue-gray bird is the largest of the North American herons and can be seen standing statue-like in the marsh, waiting for fish and other prey in the shallow water. We also observed several Green Frogs and a Pickerel Frog from the viewing platforms along the trail.