Posts Tagged ‘native plants’

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lycopodium – The Moss That Isn’t

Language. It’s supposed to make communication easier, but sometimes it ends up just confusing issues more. Take plant names, for example, specifically mosses. If I say “moss” to you, you probably picture some dark green, low-growing, soft groundcover in the woods. And for the most part, you’d be right. But what about reindeer moss? It’s not a moss at all; it’s a lichen. Clubmoss is another misnomer – the plant may actually look like a large moss, but it isn’t. In fact, it is more closely related to ferns than it is to true mosses.

Clubmosses, which belong to the family Lycopodiaceae, are vascular plants that do not have flowers and that reproduce sexually by means of spores (like mushrooms, ferns and true mosses). Clubmosses have stems, which true mosses don’t, and the sporophyte, at least, has real roots – true mosses don’t have roots.

Here at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center, we have three very common clubmosses: Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum), Shining Clubmoss (L. lucidulum), and Stiff Clubmoss (L. anotinum). You can also find Running Clubmoss (L. clavatum) – this is the one pictured above.

Princess pine, as you might expect, looks a lot like a miniature conifer tree. Also called ground pine, at one time it was harvested extensively for holiday decorations. As with many wild harvesting “programs,” gatherers did not make much money for the time and effort they had to expend. As a result, when patches of the desired plant were found, they were often cleaned out. Such unsustainable harvesting practices resulted in many plants becoming rare. Today clubmosses are among the many native plants that are protected by law.

When I started my career as a naturalist, one of the first things I learned about lycopodium was that the spores were used historically for flash powder. We’ve all seen westerns, or other movies that portray life in the 1800s. Whenever you saw a photograph being taken in that time period, there was a guy (usually) with a big box camera draped in black cloth. He would hold up a t-shaped bar, tell everyone to hold really still, and then flash! bang! the cross bar would explode and the photograph was taken. The stuff that flashed was clubmoss spores. Like flour in a mill, the fine dust-like spores, which are very rich in oil, are highly flammable. Unlike flour, however, the spores burn fast and bright, but with little heat. No theater stages (flash powder was used to simulate lightning) or photo studios burned to the ground because of flash powder.

It turns out, however, that clubmosses had many more historical uses. According to a couple sources I found, the Woodland Crees would rub raw fish eggs into stiff clubmoss to separate them from their gelatinous membranes. After they were separated, the eggs were used to make fish-egg bread. It doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’ve never tried it – maybe it’s pretty good.

Clubmoss spores found their way into surgery as a dusting powder, and were even used to treat conditions like eczema. At one time the spores were popular as baby powder. This might be because they are water repellent. Apparently if you cover your hand with the spores and then submerge it in water, it will not get wet!

But that’s not all. Spores from L. complanatum, commonly called groundcedar, were used by the Blackfoot people as an antiseptic and to stop nosebleeds. They also used the entire plant as a mordant, which is a compound used to set dyes.

What about mystical powers? The Dakelh people of British Columbia at one time used clubmoss spores to determine if the sick would survive their illnesses. The divination process was simple: spores were dropped into a container of water. If they drifted in the direction of the sun, the patient had a good chance of survival. I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this for my own survival, but in a time when penicillin was unheard of and belief in the spirit world was strong, it might’ve made all the difference in a person’s will to live.

If you’d like to learn how to identify some of our local clubmosses, stop by the VIC and take the Browsing Botanist tour of the Rich Lake Trail. The guide booklet, which you can pick up at the front desk, will introduce you to these groundcovers. Once you’ve made their acquaintances, you will start to see them everywhere as a new window into the wild opens before your eyes.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Appreciating Adirondack Grasses

Are you one of those people who, when driving down the Northway, notices the various colors of the grasses growing in the median? If you aren’t, then you should slow down a bit and take a peek, for this time of year, especially in the early morning sunshine, they are quite beautiful: clouds of delicate purples, patches of russet oranges. I find it very tempting to pull over, get out of the car, and wade in amongst them. Since I’m sure the state troopers are not as likely to share my enthusiasm, I never have.

Grasses have caught my attention for years. They have wonderful flowerheads (inflorescences) that come in a great many varieties, and the colors, when seen en masse, can be quite the delight for the eye. I actually love to see lawns that have been allowed to go wild, for they fill an otherwise boring green expanse with delightful colors and textures.

Recently I was out botanizing with a friend who, among other things, really knows her grasses and sedges. Most of us wouldn’t know the difference between a grass, a sedge, or a rush if our lives depended on it. Sure, perhaps we recall the rhyme “Sedges have edges and rushes are round, and grasses have nodules where elbows are found” (or some variation thereof), but in practice, they all look like “grass” to the untrained eye. I asked my botanically-inclined friend if she knew of any good books for grass ID, but she said no.

I, however, have two grass ID books in my rather large collection of natural history books. One I’ve had in my Naturalist Daypack for quite some time, but I’ve never taken the time to actually read it. Until now. Inspired by my friend’s knowledge, and never one to want to be left behind in the proverbial dust, I decided to crack the book and learn me some grasses.

As with many natural history and species ID adventures, at first it seemed intimidating, an almost insurmountable task. They all look the same! I’ll never be able to tell them apart! But by taking the time to actually read the text, the small details, those clues that tell one species from the next, soon become apparent.

To begin with, many sedges, but not all, have triangular stems (edges). Many rushes have cylindrical, or round, stems. And grasses, as a whole, have joints, or nodules, where their leaves join the stem. After learning this, you can start to study some of the other distinguishing factors. The book I’m currently reading, Grasses by Lauren Brown, starts off with a dichotomous key, which many people find intimidating, but which I find a relief to use. From there, she’s grouped the plants by visual similarities. The simple pen and ink illustrations point out key traits for quick identification. Unlike many ID guides (try some of the moss or fern books), this one is written for the layperson. Technical jargon is explained – it’s not assumed you are working towards your PhD in botanical sciences.

The only real “work” will be memorizing the scientific names. Most real botanists forego common names and with good reason: they are not standardized. What you may call Indian Paintbrush is known as Hawkweed to someone else, and that person applies Indian Paintbrush to an entirely different plant. But the reason for learning the scientific names goes beyond this, for many grasses (sedges, rushes) and other plants, like mosses and lichens, have no common names. The common man has given most of them very little attention, and if you aren’t paying attention to something, you aren’t going to give it a name. If it weren’t for the scientists, these plants would have no names at all.

I think that for some time now Grasses will join my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide as a passenger in my car. I’m actually eager, now that I have inspiration, to get out in the field and start getting to know my grassy neighbors. Armed with my field guide and a hand lens, I hope to soon have names like Anthoxanthum ordoratum and Cyperus esculentus tripping off my tongue.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Another Invasive in the Adirondack Garden

“What have you got that the deer won’t like?” I asked the dude at the garden place. This was my favorite nursery, and over the years I spent hundreds of dollars there. I liked the people, I loved their display gardens, and their plant selection was terrific. Unfortunately, they included several invasive species in their stock and promoted them for garden plantings.

“The Japanese Barberry would be great – we have two colors, green and rose. The rose-colored one will look great next to your pale yellow house.” » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Adirondack Poison: White Snakeroot

‘Tis the season for White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). This pretty, weedy plant can be found blooming in many of our forests from late summer “until frost.” Hm…that could be any day now, if you believe the weather reports!

One of the nice things about white snakeroot is that it is one of our native plants. According to my field guide, it is classified with the bonesets and Joe Pye weed – a Eupatorium. However, botanists, like birders, can be found reclassifying living organisms on an almost daily basis, it seems, and now this plant is in a separate genus: Ageratina.

I think that because we are surrounded these days with warnings about non-native invasive species, we tend to slip into the idea that native plants must all be good. In one sense they are: they are good for the ecological niche in which they have evolved. But this doesn’t make them “good” plants, necessarily. White snakeroot is an excellent example of this, for it is poisonous.

Back in the 19th century, many many people died from a disease that was labelled “milk sickness.” It seems that some milk (and, it turns out, meat) was tainted with something that made the cattle ill and killed people. The disease was known to wipe out large portions of early settlements (Abraham Lincoln’s own mother was one of its victims), and it became such a problem in parts of Kentucky that a $600 award was offered in the early 1800s to anyone who could find the cause of the disease.

Although not officially identified until 1928, legend has it that Dr. Anna Bixby (1809-1869) identified the causative agent long before that. Supposedly many of her patients were dying from milk sickness, and, as was probably fairly common at the time, the disease was blamed on witchcraft. Dr. Bixby knew there must be a more rational explanation, and noted that the disease only turned up in late summer and into the fall, and it seemed to be based on something the cattle were eating. One day she met up with a Shawnee woman who told her that white snakeroot was the culprit. Dr. Bixby fed a bit of the plant to a calf, which promptly displayed all the symptoms. She had all of the plant torn out from the fields and forests where cattle were grazing, and remarkably, the disease went away. Sadly, she never got credit for this (nor did the Shawnee woman).

What happens is that cattle eat white snakeroot when there is no other forage around, so it’s not like it’s a primary food choice for them. The plant contains tremetol, which is the poisonous compound. Tremetol is stored in the meat and milk, and thus it gets passed on to people who consume these cattle products.

That said, according to Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany, the Cherokee and Iroquois did use this plant for a variety of medicines, including treatment for urinary ailments, as a diuretic, and as a treatment for venereal diseases. He doesn’t say, however, how well the medicines worked.

Still, just because a plant is toxic doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it – just don’t eat it! As you walk through the woods, perhaps along a shady path, keep your eyes open for a scraggly-looking plant about three to five feet tall. The leaves are jagged, and the top has a flattened cluster of white flowers. If you are lucky, you may find some butterflies nectaring on it, for it is one of their foods. Take the time to get to know it, for it is a lovely plant. Then note where it is so you can be sure your cattle don’t graze upon it.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hawthorn vs Hawthorn – Avoiding The Invasives

I took a few moments this morning to read the comments on past posts to the Almanack (thank you, all) and found a potentially distressing note on my deer-proofing post. I had mentioned that a good deer proof plant to include in your arsenal was hawthorn, and someone commented that we need to be careful about invasive hawthorns. Invasive hawthorns? I didn’t know there were such things, so I had to look it up.

Lo! and behold, the anonymous commenter was correct: there is an invasive hawthorn out there. It is Crataegus monogyna, the oneseed hawthorn, aka: English hawthorn. This plant has become quite the pest out in California, but it seems to have made inroads throughout the West as well as the East. According to the range map I saw, the middle of the US seems to be free of this invasive so far. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gardening for Butterflies and Moths

Most of us are familiar with monarch butterflies, those stunning Hallowe’en-colored insects that make phenomenal migration flights from the northern parts of North American to the hidden forests in Mexico. But if you mention painted ladies, people are more likely to think of old Victorian houses with bright new paint jobs, or women with questionable reputations, than they are butterflies. Likewise, thanks to ads for a popular sleeping remedy, luna moths are easily recognized by much of the American population, while Isabella moths remain mostly unknown (woolly bear caterpillars turn into Isabella moths). » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Bloom Index, Part II

It’s a fresh new month and time for an update to our bloom-dates table. But first, my friend Gerry Rising, Nature Watch columnist for the Buffalo News, reports that phenologists are asking regular jamokes to share their observations of trees and wildflowers. You can become a citizen scientist by noticing when chokecherries or even dandelions bloom in your back yard.

Two Web sites collect this information: the National Phenology Network and Cornell University’s Project Budbreak. Plant and animal life cycles can be susceptible to climate variations, so phenologists (the people who study seasonal patterns) are interested in your observations.

Following are median bloom dates for June from Mike Kudish’s Adirondack Upland Flora. Mike says the dates are most accurate for 1,500-to-2,000-foot elevations (the “Adirondack upland”).

June 1: Jack-in-the-pulpit, chokecherry, Solomon’s plumes
June 2: Low sweet blueberry
June 3: Wild sarsaparilla
June 5: Clintonia, bog rosemary
June 6: Bunchberry and white baneberry
June 7: Canada mayflower and bog laurel
June 9: Starflower and black chokeberry
June 10: Fringed polygala, three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, nannyberry
June 12: Labrador tea, Indian cucumber, small cranberry
June 13: Pink lady’s slipper
June 14: Hooked buttercup (Earliest sunrise, 5:13 a.m.)
June 15: Blue-eyed grass
June 17: Wild raisin, common cinquefoil
June 20: Sheep laurel
(June 20-23: Longest days of the year, 15 hours, 41 minutes)
June 26: Bush honeysuckle and tall meadow rue
June 27: Wild iris
June 29: Wood sorrel

The late naturalist Greenleaf Chase made a list for the Nature Conservancy of rare blooms on some of its Adirondack protection sites. On alpine summits he found Lapland rosebay aflower in early June, Diapensia, Labrador tea, bog laurel and mountain sandwort in late June. Greenie would visit the Clintonville pine barrens in early June to see Ceanothus herbacea (prairie redroot). Viola novae-angliae (New England blue violet) also flowers in early June on the Hudson River ice meadows near North Creek; Listera auriculata (a native orchid called auricled twayblade) blooms there in late June.

Lastly is a list of plants that amateur botanist and hall-of-fame pitcher Christy Mathewson identified around Saranac Lake in June 1922: wild carrot, bunchberry, mountain laurel?, sheep laurel, wintergreen, trailing arbutus, labrador tea, star flower, moss pink, forget-me-not, heal-all, ground ivy, bluets, ox-eye daisy, dandelion, hawkweed, Canada hawkweed, spring beauty, yellow pond lily, live-for-ever, horsetails, blueberry, twin flower, red berry elderberry, hop clover, harebell, yellow wood sorrel, sundrop, dewberry, wild red raspberry.

Boys, take note: being good at sports is nice. Being good at sports and knowing your wildflowers? That’s hot. Special thanks to Adirondack Daily Enterprise columnist Howard Riley for finding Mathewson’s handwritten list in the Saranac Lake Free Library archives and sending me a copy.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Adirondack Wildflower Bloom Dates

Elsewhere in the Northeast, wildflowers are tentatively testing the air, while in the Adirondacks it’s still ski season. It won’t be long, though, till coltsfoot raises its fuzzy yellow head along roadsides.

Two of this region’s most-observant botanists made a study of when each native flower reappears in spring. The late Greenleaf Chase retired from the Department of Environmental Conservation but never tired of guiding friends to see rare blooms in rare places. Professor Mike Kudish, formerly of Paul Smith’s College, created a bloom-date chart for his book Adirondack Upland Flora.

And in case you think botany effete, consider that original Hall-of-Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson kept a list of flowers he found around Saranac Lake in the summer of 1922, when he was there to recover from tuberculosis. (An excerpt: “June 24, 1922: Musk Mallow, Pink Petals also White Petals!!!!”)

Starting with the vernal equinox tomorrow, daylight increases at its fastest rate, Kudish writes. The ground begins to thaw. Around April 5 the mean daily temperature begins to rise above freezing.

Here are Adirondack Upland Flora’s first median flowering dates (at elevations of 1,500 to 2,000 feet; if you live at lower elevations expect to see blooms sooner):

May 2: Trout lily, red maple
May 3: Spring beauty
May 4: Trailing arbutus
May 5: Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn
May 6: Round-leaved violet
May 7: Sweet gale
May 8: Sweet white violet
May 9: Painted trillium
May 10: Strawberry
May 11: Bartram’s serviceberry
May 12: Purple trillium
May 14: Leatherleaf
May 15: Blue violet, early saxifrage, Canada honeysuckle, kidneyleaf buttercup; most hardwoods begin to leaf out rapidly
May 17: Marsh marigold and sugar maple
May 19: Bellwort
May 20: Goldthread and toothwort
May 21: Canada violet and serviceberry
May 22: Witchhobble, downy yellow violet, red cherry (Christy Matthewson reported witchhobble blooms in April)
May 23: Dwarf ginseng
May 25: Red elderberry
May 30: Foamflower
May 31: Pussytoes

Shortly before he died in the early 1990s Greenie Chase made flower-finding notes for Kathy Regan, when she was staff biologist at the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter. In late May, he suggested, visit Valcour Island to see ram’s head ladyslipper and look on alpine summits for lapland rosebay.

We’ll post more of Christy, Greenie and Mike’s bloom notes as spring and summer progress. You can see Christy Mathewson’s list yourself in the William Chapman White Adirondack Research Center of the Saranac Lake Free Library.