30 June 2010

Spotlight On...Red Baneberry

Red Baneberry
Actaea rubra
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
Quick ID:  
Look in rich, moist thickets and shaded forests for this striking, relatively uncommon plant.  It can grow up to three feet high, with flowers appearing in early to mid-summer as fluffy clusters atop tall stalks.  The white flowers have lots of antenna-like stamens that wave out past the small petals.  Soon, the flowers fade and stalks of bright red berries take their place.
The species and subspecies of Actaea are closely related and not always easy to distinguish.  There is a white baneberry (A. pachypoda), but the red baneberry species (A. rubra) sometimes bears white fruit as well.  True white baneberries have thicker pedicels (flower-bearing stalks) than the "red" species.  You can recognize Actaea berries by the little buttons on their ends.  The white berries, with their pupil-like spots, have been used in the past as eyes for children's dolls, hence one of the common names for the plant, "Doll's Eyes".      
Found through the northern temperate zones of North America and Eurasia.  In Montana, it's most likely to be spotted in the southern and western parts of the state (see the USDA range map)
What's in a Name?
The family name Ranunculaceae comes from the Latin rana, frog, in reference to its members' affinity for wet places.  Actaea is the Latin name for a generally strong-smelling plant.  The Greek aktea is the word for the elderberry tree (Sambucus sp.), whose leaves the baneberry resembles.  Rubra is a ubiquitous species name meaning "red".  The common name "baneberry" refers to its toxicity--bane ultimately comes from the ancient root gwhen-, "to murder or wound".
You might also hear baneberry called red cohosh, necklaceweed or snakeberry.    
All parts of this plant are poisonous, with the toxin protoanemonin most concentrated in the berries and roots.  Symptoms include "the usual"--vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, stomach cramps--but the toxin ultimately acts on your heart, and can cause circulatory failure.  So don't eat it!  That said, people have been eating this plant for thousands of years.  North American Indian tribes have used a decoction of the roots to treat rheumatism, coughs and colds, and to improve the appetite.  It is said to increase milk production after childbirth, and decrease excessive menstrual bleeding.  A poultice of chewed leaves was used to soothe wounds, and there are several references to it being ingested to soothe stomach pains caused from swallowing hair. (Huh?)  But once again, unless you're a trained professional, please, don't eat it.  Eating as few as two berries can cause severe pain, and a few more can mean respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
Baneberry is not, however, poisonous to livestock.  Sheep and horses will graze on it when there's not much else around, and elk will eat the foliage in the fall (Actaea foliage stays green late in the season, after most plants have withered in the frost).  Birds like Grouse, Gray Catbird (seen here), and American Robins also relish the berries, as do mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles.
Wild Gardening:
Despite its murderous name, baneberry makes an excellent woodland garden perennial.  The foliage is lush, the flowers and fruit are highly ornamental, and it can take part to full shade.  It provides cover for small mammals and will attract songbirds to your yard.  Plants are not hard to find at nurseries, particularly those specializing in natives.  If you do decide to try propagating from seed, remember that, like many wildflowers, they need a period of cold stratification before they'll germinate, and it might take two seasons to get them to sprout.  Naturalize along with other moisture-loving species like twinberry, horsetail, thimbleberry, sedge, alder and aspen for a lush, verdant woodland garden.
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!

16 June 2010

Spotlight On...Fairyslipper Orchid

Calypso bulbosa
Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)
Quick ID:  
The Fairyslipper orchid is not easily confused with any other Montana plant.  Look for it growing low along moist, shady forest floors.  Although small-statured, it's a dramatic and striking flower that never fails to elicit a shriek of delight, crumbling my facade of stoic and objective scientific observer.  In western Montana, you can usually find them blooming mid-May through June.
The flower is in typical orchid form:  three petals and three sepals (which usually look just like petals, so they're called tepals), which are divided into a sort of upper and lower deck.  In this case, the lower "lip" petal, known as the labellum, is enlarged, slipperlike, sometimes bearing a yellow throat beard, and covered with a hood.  While many orchids grow on a raceme (a long flower stem with many blooms), the fairyslipper grows singly, nodding on a pedicel just a few inches above one elliptical leaf.     
Calypso can be found encircling the globe at northern latitudes--in the western and northern US states, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and Japan.  It grows in deep, moist woodland shade, where there is a thick layer of decaying plant material covering the ground.
What's in a Name?
Calypso was a sea goddess in Greek mythology, who was banished to the island of Ogygia after raising a ruckus with her father, Atlas, during the War of the Titans.  She's best known for her role in Homer's Odyssey, in which she imprisons Odysseus on her island.  Like the ancient sea goddess, Calypso bulbosa is enchantingly beautiful, and can only be found in secluded haunts. Interestingly, the word "calypso" comes from the Greek kalyptein, "to cover", which is also the root of the word apocalypse (apo- means "away from"; apocalypse = revelation, disclosure).
The word orchid (from the Greek orkhis) literally means "testicle", from the shape of the root of some species.  The specific epithet bulbosa is less glamorous; it references the bulb-like corms from which the flower springs. 
We could, of course, go on and on about orchids.  They are they most morphologically diverse and highly evolved family of monocots, and contain well over 25,000 species (this is twice the number of bird species in the world, and four times the number of mammals).  They occur in every part of the world except Antarctica, inhabiting most any terrain, from rain forests to glaciers.
When I think of orchids, I usually conjure up a steamy cloud forest, with showy flowers clinging to the side of damp trees.  These are called epiphytes--plants that grow in the air, attached to another plant, rather than in the soil.  It's not a parasitic relationship; they gather moisture and nutrients from the air, falling rain, and occasionally organic debris that accumulates around their perch.  Of course, this wouldn't fly in Montana's dry summers.  The orchids you find here are called terrestrial orchids, and they're rooted in the earth like any other plant.  Folks are surprised to discover that Montana has at least 30 different species of terrestrial orchids, ranging from 3" to over 3 feet tall.  Some are unassuming, like the green Bluntleaved Orchid (Platanthera obstusata), others are extremely showy, like the Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum-seen above).  While you can find many species (like the Hooded Ladies' Tresses, Spiranthes romanzoffiana) quite easily in moist areas, there are others--Giant Helleborine (Epipactis gigantea-below), Sparrow's Egg Ladyslipper (Cypripedium passerinum), Roundleaf Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)-- that elude all but the most diligent orchid hunter.  
Orchids have evolved some of the most fascinating pollination mechanisms on earth.  Calypso gives off the scent of nectar, but doesn't actually produce any.  When a bee lands on the inflated landing pad of a labellum, it slips down the throat, squirming about in search of the nonexistent food source, then buzzes its pollen-dusted body on to the next trickster flower.  Bees are quick to learn and remember this deception; the slight morphological differences in the varieties of Calypso bulbosa may be an adaptation to avoid recognition and extend the ruse. 
Wild gardening:
Not recommended.  Although Fairyslippers are quite common, they are extremely sensitive to environmental disturbance.  They form intricate relationships with soil fungi that are difficult to establish in the home garden.  Enjoy them in their natural habitat; it's a good excuse to get out there and see what's blooming.  
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!

14 June 2010

Waterworks Wonders

Waterworks Hill, Missoula, MT.  A local, easy hike.  I go up there every once in awhile with a friend or out-of-town guests.  In the past week, however, I've walked up the ridge to visit this little spot three different times.  The weeks of rain we've had have been great for the wildflowers, and they are blooming in delightful, chaotic profusion.  I'm not even sure what my favorite ones are:

The bright yellow woolly groundsel (Senecio canus), with its dusty grey-green leaves?

Or the white-pink clusters of buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium)?

Perhaps I like looking up and watching the mountain bluebirds fluttering about, still as miraculously blue as they were earlier this spring?

Or the fragrant, fuzzy yarrow (Achillea millefolium), which is bursting into white blooms?

They're all lovely, and striking in their own unique ways.  But the two that are most beautiful to me--the two that I simply can't decide between--are the fascinating bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva)--Montana's state flower!--

and the impossibly vivid purply-blue penstemon (Penstemon spp)

Most spectacular of all, however, is the way they all look together.

On Sunday the flowers were still going strong--so you still have time to get out and see them!  Go!  Now!

And enjoy!


06 June 2010

Hunting for Morels

Seven Steps to a Successful Morel Hunt
Every spring, my sweetie and I take each other on a date.  Planning begins almost a year in advance, as we keep one eye on The News waiting to find out...Where's the fire?
Because a fire there will be; it's almost guaranteed.  Besides the fact that western Montana's settling into ten-or-so years of drought conditions, fire is a natural part of a healthy forest ecosystem, and a routine occurrence here in the semi-arid west.  Our noses start twitching round-about July, because where there's smoke there's fire, and where there's fire there's mushrooms.
Theories abound regarding why morels grow in burn areas.  As there seems to be no consensus on this issue, and any speculation leads us far into the depths of fungal physiology, let's just suffice it to say that the year after a medium-to-high intensity forest fire, you can expect to find a bumper crop of the illustrious Morchella species.  Folk wisdom tells us that the morels start fruiting when the Bluebells (Mertensia) are in bloom--depending on elevation, anywhere from May to early July.  Everything about morels rests on a fine balance. You need enough rain, but not so much they rot away.  Enough warmth, but preferably overcast days.  Enough fire, but not scorched barren earth.  The hunt for a perfect spot rests as much on intuition as it does on preparation.  Here's a bit of what I've learned over the years.   
1.  Go Early, Go Deep
Fire morels will continue to pop up the second and even third summer after the burn, but it pays to get right in there.  Around here, it's no secret that fire=mushrooms.  Burns in non-remote wilderness areas will quickly be overrun with pickers (and there's nothing more disappointing than stumbling on a prime patch, only to find footprints and stem-nubs).  You either have to get up there early, or be willing to hike the long haul and boldly go where no picker has gone before.  
This year, there was just a near-vertical climb and a thunderous river crossing between us and the Super Secret Morel Gloryland.  Had a hard time walking the next day.  Worth it?  Definitely. 
2.  Know Where to Look
No mushrooms here.  We head for water (usually as simple as looking for deciduous shrubs in a forest of scorched conifers) then prowl the edges.  The ground is spongy, slick, black, often covered in a layer of needles.  The smell of burn and pine is intoxicating.  
As a general rule, where you find one, you'll find more.  The "mushroom" you see is just the fruit; the real substance is an interconnected underground web of mycelium.  Oftentimes you'll find them circling the dripline of half-burned trees.  So indeed, head for the trees, but... 
3.  Don't Trust the Trees
Or anything else in a burn area, for that matter.  You'll often find yourself on steep hillsides, where instinct tells you to pull up on those sturdy-looking trunks for support.  Come to find out that trunk is no longer attached to any sort of base, and only serves to clunk you on the head before sending you tumbling down the mountainside like a snowball.  There are also bound to be heavy rocks that are easily jogged loose from their soft, ashen beds.  And the worst of the tricksters--"root holes", we call them.  Empty cavities where tree roots have burned away, leaving a gaping hole, covered with litter like a pit trap, just waiting to twist your ankle.  Dangerous business, this mushrooming.  And speaking of which... 
4.  Beware of Impostors
Morels are fairly easy to identify.  They look like a honeycombed sponge, they're hollow, and their cap is fused to their stem.  The two most likely lookalikes that might throw you off are the False MorelGyromitra esculenta 
and the Early MorelVerpa bohemica,
both of which are potentially toxic.  Best not to mess around with questionable fungi, as a good general rule of thumb. 
5.  Be a Smart and Considerate Harvester
This goes beyond the general rule of giving other pickers their space.  It's a harvest, not a raid.  There are a few simple techniques to ensure the patch you pick will keep producing in the future.  Never rake forest litter in search of buried mushrooms; this disrupts the soil and results in overharvesting.  Pinch the mushroom off just above soil-level, so as not to disturb the mycelial mat underground.  Don't pick really tiny mushrooms, as tempting as it may be.  And tread lightly, as soil compaction can be devastating to burn areas.
6.  Don't get Caught with your Pants Down
Rules, rules, rules.  Morel hunting is so popular, there are a whole slew of regulations to keep it from running amok.  The rules vary according to region.  You definitely need landowners permission, and you might need a permit on state land.  This year, we got our free recreational permit from the Bitterroot National Forest offices, which allows us 5 gallons per day per person, up to 20 gallons for the season.  There are fees and different regulations for commercial permits. 
7.  Share the Bounty
To be honest, the thrill of the treasure hunt is the real reason I do this.  For me, finding the little camouflaged jewels in the burnt rubble far outweighs the feast that awaits.  But yes, they're delicious and earthy and wild-tasting, a forest delicacy teetering between primitive and refined.  Share them with friends.  It somehow improves the flavor. 
One Final Note
While we're all about helping everyone share in the joys of mushroom hunting, we're not about to give up our secret spots.  You'll have to discover those on your own.  Happy hunting!

*Click here for a good summary of how to process and store your harvest.
*Visit this USFS site to find active burn areas.