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Gone Fishin' & Plant Lookin'

by Mary Jasch

There’s nothing like a lazy afternoon lolling in a small boat on a small lake with calm water and a gentle breeze while someone else paddles.

Such was Sunday around 4:30 when Lance and I packed fishing gear and loaded the 16-foot scanoe (skiff x canoe) on top of the truck. Off we went to Steenykill Lake, just north of the Appalachian Trail in High Point State Park in New Jersey. Steenykill is a 30-acre lake made by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1933.

At the boat ramp / blue dot trailhead, a few invasives lent color: purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria and spotted knapweed, Centaurea maculosa, both native to Europe. Phragmites australis (one species is native to North America and others to Eurasia), wild impatiens, Impatiens capensis, native to North America and the globally ubiquitous royal fern, Osmunda regalis, accompany buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, an eastern North American native, on the shore.

Once afloat, Lance paddled us upwind and we drifted slowly back as he fished and I relaxed and checked out the vegetation. The fishing was slow with only baby perch and a fat pumpkinseed going for the bait in the deepest part of the lake Lance could find. The lake is 10 feet at its deepest and otherwise on average, five.

Bands of plants lined the shore: soft-stem bulrush (Scirpus validus) was the furthest emergent herbaceous species out in the lake. It stuck its apparently leafless, tall stems topped with cone-like seed heads above the water. Muskrats enjoy eating it; birds nest in it and dragonflies lay eggs on it.

Next, burr-reed (Sparganium sp.) made a narrow swath across shallower water. Its flowers are arranged in burrs in a wiggly fashion up and down the stem, large females toward the bottom and shriveled, smaller male flowers on top. Wild fowl eat its fruits but muskrats eat the whole plant.

Common cattail (Typha latifolia) stood tall behind bur-reed along the edges of the lake. Dense stands are cover for birds. All critters in this habitat eat them, including muskrats and beavers. Humans eat them, too, like corn on the cob and make poultices, pillows and torches from them.

Farther toward shore, common rush (Juncus effuses) grows in colonies. It is identifiable from the boat by its height and clouds of brown flowers and capsules, and recognizable up close because its inflorescence leaves the stem from one point on the side and its round stem continues above it. Muskrats eat the plant base and upland birds eat the seed of this globally ubiquitous species.

A veritable rock garden thrives on the northern shore. Here, North American natives black raspberries, wild impatiens and Rudbeckia and European/Aisian natives yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) accompany grasses, cattail, rushes and bulrushes.

Out on the open water a few submersed species make it to the top. Under water, variable-leaf watermilfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) has dissected, fern-like leaves in whorls which creates a dense, furry look. Its long thin stems reach to the light and emerge, changing to thick, bright red stems with simple, serrated leaves. This species, native to southeastern U.S., is moving northward and has been discovered in one lake in Vermont.

“We are very concerned about it spreading,” says Ann Bove, aquatic biologist who coordinates Vermont’s invasive species program. She is also an environmental scientist with the Watershed Management Division of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s an invasive. We’ve been watching it for many years. Many water quality associations, towns and government organizations have management programs for it.” The plant outcompetes natives, depletes oxygen, reduces diversity and also inhibits recreation.

(Note: New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection has been notified and we await their response.)

The submersed wild celery, a.k.a. eel grass, (Vallisneria americana) sends tiny white female flowers to the surface on long thin, corkscrew pedicels to be pollinated. Vallisneria has a fascinating pollination strategy. The male inflorescence, that contains about 2,000 male flowers, is embedded in the submersed leaf axils. When mature, they are released, float to the surface and disperse on the water. When a ripple or wave hits a female flower, it closes. So if a male flower happens to land on a female flower just before she is hit by a wave, they are trapped together and pollination occurs. Then, the female flower’s pedicel recoils, taking them both to the bottom where the fruit forms and seed eventually disperses. The plant’s foliage resembles blades of soft, ribbon-like grass that wave with the water’s movement. Leaves and tubers are food for muskrat, birds and fish.

Dusk came and went and still we floated on the calm lake, watching fish poke at the surface to snatch insects. Reluctantly, Lance paddled to shore.

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published July 24, 2012

Photos to enlarge

Steenykill Lake, High Point State Park, NJ

Shoreline invaders: Purple loosestrife and spotted knapweed. Royal fern is lower left.


Variable-leaf/two-leaf watermilfoil with feathery submersed leaves and stiff, serrated emmersed leaves on thick red stems

L to R (and front to back): Colonies of cattail, bur-reed and brown-headed rushes

Bur-reed (Sparganium sp.)

Eel grass (Vallisneria americana)makes its corkscrew stem by cell elongation for its female flower.

High Point Monument over Steenykill Lake, NJ

Common rush (Juncus effusus), meadowsweet shrub(Filipendula ulmaria, chestnut oak (Quercus prinus

Water like glass

Shoreline rock garden of buttonbush, bulrush, iris, meadowsweet, rush

Shoreline rock garden of rudbeckia, impatiens, juncus

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