28 April 2010

Spotlight On...Boxelder Maple

Boxelder Maple
Acer negundo
Aceraceae (Maple Family)
Quick ID:  
A relatively short (~30-50') tree, usually with multiple trunks, growing in moist woods and along streambanks.  The Boxelder is the only maple in North America whose leaves are compound (divided into parts - in this case usually 3). 
Acer negundo is dioecious (from the Latin "two houses") meaning the individual trees are distinctly male or female.  This is easy to distinguish in early spring when they're flowering:
                                                          Female pistillate flowers

                                                       Male staminate flowers

Only the female trees make the "helicopter" fruits common to maples (technically known as samaras, also called keys), and only if there is a male nearby. 
In winter, they're easy to recognize by their chubby, opposite buds; the twigs are fresh looking, green or purple, and covered with a fine fuzz that's easy to rub off.
The wood is abnormally soft for a Maple, and branches tend to break off easily, making this a somewhat scraggly tree.
The most widespread maple in the world, stretching from Ontario south to Guatemala, with a native range that covers a wide swath of North America.  In many parts of the US, especially eastern states,  it's considered a pesky tree at best; in Australia it's officially considered an invasive species.
What's in a Name?  
Acer means "sharp", in reference to the normally hard wood of maples, which the Romans used for spear shafts.  Negundo is a Sanskrit word referencing the resemblance to Chastetree (Vitex negundo).  The name Boxelder (or Box Elder) comes from the leaves' similarity to Sambucus (Elder) and the white wood's likeness to Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens).  A few sources say it's named for the fact that people make boxes from its soft wood, but I'm not buying it.  
This is also commonly known as Manitoba or Ash-leaf Maple.  In Spanish it's Fresno de Guajuco 
Tidbits:  Acer negundo is most famous for its relationship to the Boxelder bug (Boisea trivitattus).  There are many myths and misconceptions floating around about these little critters, so let's break it down.
1.  Boxelder bugs are found on all kinds of maple and ash trees, but greatly prefer A. negundo.  Only the female trees are hosts to the bugs.  They feed on low vegetation in spring, lay eggs all over the tree in mid-July, and start to move toward overwintering sites in fall.
2.  These overwintering sites may very well be your warm, cozy house!  Some buildings are more susceptible to the invasion- namely, the sunniest ones (tall, good southern exposure).  Adults can travel up to two miles in search of a winter home, so chopping down the Boxelder tree in the front yard might not save you (although it may help).
3.  They don't bite.
4.  They don't cause any noticeable injury to their host trees.
5.  It's highly unlikely they'll gobble up your house plants.
6.  They might leave streaks of poo on your walls and curtains.  This is probably their greatest fault.
7.  The best defense is offense.  For a great reference on what you can do to seal up your home, see this U-MN Extension publication.
8.  You can find piles of the bright red nymphs throughout the summer.  They're harmless, fascinating insects to observe.
Boxelder is highly sensitive to 2,4-D (a common herbicide), and is susceptible to fire and mechanical damage due to its thin bark.
The wood is used for fiberboard, cheap furniture, pulp and fuel.  You can tap these trees in spring to produce maple syrup.
Seedlings and young saplings look a lot like Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans-on the bottom in these photos).

Wild gardening:
This is a fast growing, short-lived tree (avg. 60 yrs) that's hardy to Zone 2 and highly drought tolerant.  With it's prolific seeds and ready establishment, it has a tendency to become weedy or invasive.  It also suckers like crazy where branches have been cut or broken.  Maybe not the best choice for a tidy lawn, but fine for naturalized areas in the west.  In fact, it provides essential habitat factors for backyard wildlife.  Besides Boxelder bugs, it's a larval host to Cecropia Silkmoths (Hyalophora cecropia-mostly found in the east).  It's wind-pollinated but also visited by bees.  Squirrels and many birds, particularly the Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustus vespertinus), feed on the seeds.

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

26 April 2010

Biogeography Field Trip at McCauley Butte

The past two Saturdays, the Montana Master Naturalist classes took a field trip up to McCauley Butte, a prominent Missoula landmark owned by one of MNHC's board members, Mindy Goldberg, and her husband, Stuart.  Stuart's business, Northern Lights Development, has placed conservation easements on most of this land (read more here).

Mindy and Stuart met us at the property, and we hiked to the top--a rather leisurely hike, as we had to stop and identify wildflowers, insects, and birds along the way!
Oh, yes, and rocks, too.  All of the rocks on McCauley Butte are sedimentary, as guest lecturer Greg Peters points out.
Stuart took the time to give us a brief history of this landmark, as well as share some of the future plans for this unique piece of land.
As we hiked up the hill, we stopped to notice the lovely little woodland stars (Lithophragma parviflorum)--aptly named!
There were also many of the bright little shooting stars (Dodecatheon pauciflorum):
as well as buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus):
and some tiny little draba (Draba verna):

We also saw several birds, including an osprey pair in the midst of adding to their nest, red-tailed hawks soaring out over the valley, and the lovely western meadowlark, with its beautiful song.
It was a cloudy, breezy, but warmish day, and the views were spectacular!
We learned about the geologic history of the Missoula Valley, and were able to see the Glacial Lake Missoula lines on Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo, as well as a birds'-eye view of our beautiful valley!
We were very grateful to Stuart and Mindy for sharing their beautiful space with us.
The sun peeked through at the end of the day, a lovely benediction and reminder of spring.

22 April 2010

Happy Earth Day!

  Yesterday was an exciting day for us here at MNHC.  Lisa Bickell, our intrepid Education Director, led a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the installation of five new interpretive trail signs along the Clark Fork River Trail.  In a collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute, Run Wild Missoula and the State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, MNHC created these signs to explain how certain biological attributes of local species are inspiring scientists to create and improve products for humans.

  Mayor Engen was also on hand to help with the ribbon cutting.  He reiterated that improving the trails in Missoula enhances life for all residents and encourages them to get outside.  More improvements will be coming to the trails thanks to this partnership - mile markers, additional signage and detailed trail maps will all debut this summer so stay tuned!

  Be sure to read the Missoulian's article about the ribbon cutting and check out the video!

Stay tuned for photos - our internet is a little slow today!

18 April 2010

Kootenai Nature Ramble

Kootenai Nature Ramble
I can't think of anywhere I'd rather have been today than strolling with my sweetheart through Kootenai Canyon.  A mellow trek through the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, sidling past shear cliffs to the roaring tumble of Kootenai Creek, around every bend a new sign of spring's rise and shine...it was a lucky day to be alive, indeed.
I saw my first Woodland Stars (Lithophragma parviflorum) of the season.
and the Western Trillium (Trillium ovatumblanketed the forest floor.
We caught a charming little Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis), which brought my snake-spotting count for the season up to five!
When the snake slithered off into a nearby hole, it led us to our best find of the day: this big ol' Western Toad (Bufo boreas).
He sat guarding the snake's hole like a sentry.  He was almost as big as Derf's face.
What a delight.  Farther on down the trail, we saw Ribes just about ready to flower...
...Clematis occidentalis leaves unfurling...
...and Hooker's Fairy Bells (Prosartes hookeri) in full bloom.
As we approached the burn area from summer 2009, one hillside in particular was blazing with wildflowers:
The pollinators were relishing in the new nectar sources.  Here's a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa, MT's state butterfly) visiting a blooming willow (Salix)
Back near the trailhead, a peculiar bird caught my eye with it's darting acrobatics.  What at first seemed to be a huge swallow turned out to be a bat, cruising around in broad daylight.
An enchanting end to a perfect day.  What I can't show you in these photos is the call of the Osprey swooping overhead, the acrid earthy smell of the conifer needles underfoot, or the feeling of a warm and welcome breeze at your back.  Get out there.  Let me know what you discover.

10 April 2010

Spotlight On...Yellowbells

Fritillaria pudica
Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Quick ID:  
Okay, so this one's a softball.  Look for those little yellow bells, of course!  Watch where you step; they're low-growing (~3"), their faces turn down, and they're blooming now through May.  The flowers can be darker near the base, with six tepals (the name for petals and sepals that are structurally the same) and a few blunt-tipped, strap-like leaves.  If you dug them up (which you wouldn't, because it would destroy the whole plant and decimate our wildflower population, or course), you'd find a scaly little corm (swollen, bulb-like thing) with little corm-lets the size of rice grains attached.  If you leave them be, these little bobbles (okay, they're technically called cormels) will grow into new yellowbells...and the more the merrier where these nodding cuties are concerned.
Gladiolus Corm & CormelsLiliaceae family members are characterized by leaves with parallel veins (like a grass, as oposed to palmate veins, like a maple leaf), basal leaves (growing from the base of the stem) and flower parts in 3s (in this case, 3 petals and 3 sepals jointly called tepals).  

0-5000'; common throughout the northwest in short grass- and sagebrush prairie and conifer forests, with one of the widest distributions in the Fritillaria genus.  Click here for MT range map
Yellow Bells by Calypso Orchid.

What's in a Name?  
File:Fritillaria meleagris0.jpg
Fritillaria is from the Latin word for "dicebox", which makes sense when you look at the Snake's Head Lily, F. meleagris (right).  The species pudica means "bashful"--the classic, modest "Venus pudica" pose is well-known in the art world.

Tidbits:  The corms of yellowbells are edible raw (tastes like potato) or cooked (tastes like rice).  Many western North American tribes picked and ate them along with Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), but they were never regarded as a major source of sustanance.  The starchy corms also provide food for black and grizzly bears, pocket gophers and ground squirrels.
The flower is said to smell sweet as an Easter Lily, but this particular plant nerd has never gotten her nose close enough to the ground to take a sniff.  Maybe this spring...  
Wild gardening:
Fritillaria pudicaAs with many yellow flowers, Fritillaria pudica is pollinated by bees, as well as beetles and flies.  It would do well in a naturalized prairie-lawn, as long as it wasn't dominated by larger plants, or would be particularly nice in a raised "miniatures" bed.  Keep it in full sun to part shade, reasonably moist in spring and bone dry during its summer dormancy. 
Yellowbells are among the first plants to bloom after the snow melts, but their flowers fade fast, the petals blushing deep red and curling backwards.  Their short-lived nature only adds to their charm, as tends to happen with quick bouts of lovliness.  As Ms. Dickinson pointed out,

To see the summer sky is poetry
           though never in a book it lie...
                              True poems flee

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

08 April 2010

Not Just Another Mallard

. . . although this is not to say that I don't like mallards.  The glossy green feathers on the male are strikingly beautiful, no less so because it's a common species.

But until two weeks ago, and our Master Naturalist Class visit with expert birder Larry Weeks to the ponds at Smurfit-Stone, I had no idea what a spectacular variety of waterfowl we have here in western Montana.

It was a cold, blustery day (so windy, in fact, that our eyes teared up while we tried to look through our binoculars, and the spotting scopes shook in the gusts and nearly fell over once or twice), but birders, I am learning, don't let paltry things like wind, cold, snow, rain, hail, etc., keep them from their naturalist duty.  Despite the challenges, we were able to see and identify more than 20 bird species.

Until this field trip, I tended to look at a flock of waterfowl on a pond or river and think, "Oh, it's just a bunch of ducks."  I.e., they're all the same.  Little did I know.

Species we saw:
Canada goose
Northern Pintail (see below)

American Wigeon (see below)

Eurasian Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal (see below)

Lesser Scaup
Ring-necked Duck (see below)

Redhead (see below)

Bufflehead (see below)

American Coot
And . . . oh, yes, the Mallard!