25 May 2010

Spotlight On...Blue-eyed Mary

Blue-eyed Mary
Collinsia parviflora
Scrophulariaceae (Figwort Family)
Quick ID:  
The hard part isn't being able to identify Collinsia, but being able to spot it in the first place. The flowers are tiny, rarely more than a few millimeters across.  Luckily they're often found growing in groups, on relatively bare ground.  Look for little snapdragony-type flowers growing on red, hairy stems with narrow linear leaves.  The entire plant is just a wisp, really, and a mass of them blanketing the ground is an enchanting springtime delight.
Delightful though they may be, they are also notoriously hard to photograph.  Here, Blue-eyed Marys dot the ground along with Larkspur, Shooting Star, Biscuitroot and Woodland Star.  Kootenai Creek tumbles below the hillside.
You'll find Collinsia in moist, shady forests, often growing where other plants are sparse.  Its large range extends throughout the southern parts of Canada, south to Texas and east to Colorado.  In Montana, it's mostly found in the southern and western parts of the state.

What's in a Name?
Who is this Mary lady?  There have been a few rather famous Marys throughout history (it was the #1 most common name in 1900, and still remained there as of 1990), so I guess the mystery isn't quite as intriguing as if the plant was called...say, Blue-eyed Leah, but still.  It seems the origin of this particular moniker is lost to us; I certainly can't find any mention of it.
Scientific names are much easier to track down.  Collinsia is named in honor of Zaccheus Collins, VP of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences around the turn of the 19th century.  Thomas Nuttall named the genus after him, and David Douglas named the species in 1827.  The Latin word parvus means small-in this case, small flowers (parviflora).  There are 19 species of Collinsia, including one with "giant" flowers, aptly named C. grandiflora.
Members of the Scrophulariaceae family (or "Scrophs", as we plant geeks like to call them) are named for scrofula, which they're supposed to cure.  Scrofula is an archaic word for certain forms of tuberculosis, some of which are spread through unpasteurized milk (the Latin scrofule means "brood cow").  To further yuck it up, Scrophs have also been used to treat hemorrhoids, which in the olden days were known as "figs" (hence the common name "figwort family"--wort generally meaning "a plant").  Hemorrhoid plants.  Yikes!      
Tidbits:  Other Scrophs include penstemon, snapdragons, paintbrush, foxglove and monkeyflower.  All have characteristic corollas (petal arrangements) with upper and lower "lips".  In Collinsia, the upper lip is usually lighter than the dark blue lower lip.
There are brief mentions of Blue-eyed Mary being used by the Kayenta Navajo as a "plant to make horses run fast", and Ute tribes used it externally on sore flesh.
Wild gardening:
Collinsia is one of those sought-after plants that enjoys shade and can tolerate shallow soil.  It also has a long bloom season (Apr-July) and will establish and spread easily if there's not too much competition from surrounding plants.
This is an annual plant; it grows from seed produced the previous season rather than surviving by underground storage structures.  You can start collecting seeds (a somewhat tedious endeavor) in late May, and sow them outdoors in the fall.
This is a great example of how wild gardening conveniently mimics natural systems.  Plants drop their seeds in the fall, and wait for spring moisture and temps to be right for germination.  You can do the same thing.  It takes the guesswork out of the equation, and the plants will thank you for it.  Come spring, you can sit back and enjoy the show.  

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!

12 May 2010

Spotlight On...Currants & Gooseberries

Currants & Gooseberries
Ribes spp.
Grossulariaceae (Currant Family)
Quick ID:  
The many species of Ribes have a few things in common.  Look for deciduous shrubs with alternate, palmately lobed leaves growing along streams and on drier foothills.  The spicy-scented flowers can be white, pinkish or yellow, with petals fused into a tube at the base.  The ovaries are inferior-somewhat more rare in the plant kingdom than superior ovaries.  This basically means that the female part of the flower (that, once pollinated, will swell into a seed-bearing fruit) is located below where the petals and sepals are attached.  
Incidentally, inferior ovaries evolved later in plants; a protective measure to keep the important reproductive parts tucked away.  It's easy to see once the fruit starts forming, with the end result being a dry little spike where the flower once was, right at the end of the berry.
Ribes is a large genus; we have 14 species that are common throughout Montana.  The shrubs grow from three to over nine feet tall, spreading into a thicket through zealous new sprouts that spring from the roots.  The berries are prolific, ranging from shades of yellow, orange, and red to a purplish-black.  In general, gooseberries have prickles and currants do not.  Common names being fickle as they are, however, this is not always the case.
Cooking spiny gooseberries softens the thorns and makes them palatable.

Ribes are native to high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and can be found in every Canadian province and US state except Louisiana and Hawaii.  Europe and Asia also host several native species.  Click here to see distribution maps of different species. 

What's in a Name?
Over 2000 years ago, the Greek city Corinthe began growing and shipping a small dried grape (Uva corinthiaca) all over Europe.  The word "currant" is a corruption of "Corinthe"; it was incorrectly assumed that these Corinthian grapes were actually Ribes berries.  The misnomer stuck.  Ribes, in turn, derives from the Arabic or Persian word ribas, "acid-tasting".  The root of the family name, Grossularia, is a Latinization of the French word for currant, groseille.  And gooseberries, well...they just taste good when they're stuffed into a roast goose, according to old English custom.   

 Tidbits:  It comes as no surprise that this useful berry has such a long and vivid history.  North American tribes used currants and gooseberries for summer and winter sustenance, as treatment for ailments ranging from toothaches to kidney disease to snakebites, and as a seasonal signal for when to plow and plant corn.  Gooseberry thorns were used to remove splinters and apply tattoos.  It was believed that Ribes growing alongside streams was an indicator of fish, and that sprigs of the plant placed in cribs kept babies happy. Lewis and Clark were delighted with the three species of Ribes they discovered on their travels along the Missouri River:
         wax currant (R. cereum)
         sticky currant (R. viscosissimum)
         and golden currant (R. aureum).

Golden currant is perhaps the most well-known and widespread.  Today, currants are generally thought of as a tasty berry.  Indeed, all Ribes fruits are edible, but they can be sweetly juicy, puckery tart, dry and seedy, or just plain weird tasting.
Currants are host to the first stage of blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), a fungus that's harmless to Ribes but deadly to five-needled pines.  Blister rust was introduced to the US from Europe around 1900, and through the 1950s there was a massive (unsuccessful) Ribes eradication effort which included a ban on commercial production.  Today, currants are only produced commercially in Greece and South Africa.

Wild gardening:
Ribes offer early spring flowers (April-May), bright summer berries and bold fall colors.  They're easily propagated by their offshoots, which can be tugged out of the ground, snipped off along with some stringy roots and popped in the ground as is.
As with all new plantings, give them plenty of water the first season to establish a healthy root system, and within three years they'll start bearing fruit.  They are happy in sand or clay, sun or part shade, standing water or drought.  Trim suckers diligently to keep a tidy, compact shrub, or allow to naturalize into a thicket haven for wildlife.  Here at the Nature Adventure Teaching Garden at Fort Missoula, Golden Currant fills out a native bed, along with Western Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Prairie Junegrass (Koelaria macrantha) and Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).
Currants fill an important niche by providing an early-season nectar source for bees and hummingbirds, particularly the Rufous and Calliope in western Montana.  For more info on nontraditional pollinator plants, check out this excellent article from Montana Wildlife Gardener  The berries are a source of food for birds, black bears and rodents, while the abundant leaves are an important browse for deer and elk in the wild.  

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!

11 May 2010

Woods Gulch Hike

Saturday was a lovely day for a hike.  Cloudy but warm, with bits of sunshine peeking through at intervals.  We hiked up Woods Gulch, and were rewarded with some lovely wildflowers, budding larches, and good views!

There were hundreds of trillium (Trillium ovatum) along the trail, especially along the creek:

The yellow glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) were also out in full force:

The narrow-leaved desert parsley, also known as nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), was blooming:
We also saw a few shy little fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) peeping out from the forest floor:

As well as hundreds of tiny blue-eyed Marys (Collinsia parviflora) basking in the sunshine:

There were a few aptly-named spring beauties (Claytonia lanceolata) scattered about:

And the Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) was just starting to bloom:

There were even a few shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.)  still blooming!

And it's that time of year to enjoy the fresh bright green of the larches:

Spring has definitely sprung!  Where are you going on these sunny/cloudy/windy/warm/rainy May days?  What are you finding?  Please share!

06 May 2010

Kids vs. BEETLES

  It's been a busy time for us here at MNHC.  Visiting Naturalist field trips are in full swing, summer camp registration is booming and we're switching up things at the front desk.  I, Julia, will be leaving Missoula in a few weeks to begin a new adventure.  My fiance and I will be taking a 9-month long trip around the world starting in June.  I am thrilled about traveling and equally thrilled that we were able to find an excellent new office manager to hold down the fort.  Her name is Debra Jones and she hails from Spokane, WA.  She enjoys traveling with her husband, J.P. and hiking with her hardy-for-her-size Shorkie, Luna.  Make sure you say hi to her next time you come down to the center!

  A few weeks ago Annika Johns visited us to lead a Kid's Activity about beetles, a subject she researches at the university under Professor Doug Emlen.  The kids were so excited to hold beetle larva and learn about the life cycle of beetles. 


  A big thanks to Annika and her (hopefully not too scared) horned beetles.  The kids had a great time!

Be sure to join us at MNHC this Saturday, May 8th for another insect Kid's Activity.  This time, our very own Jessie Sherburne will be helping kids learn to identify different insects and take the group out on a bug-capturing adventure.  See you there!