Monday, December 29, 2014

Getting Low at Sudden

Yesterday Alyssa and I went for a hike at Sudden Tract, a large forest and wetland owned and managed by the Region of Waterloo southwest of Cambridge.  The topography and divesity makes it a personal favourite for any season.  Walking the trails I got to thinking that there are a few species similar in form and found at many of the dry-fresh oak-hickory forests within North Dumfries Township.

With it's bright red berries Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) sticks out among the oak leaf litter.  Both the berries and leaves give off the pleasant wintergreen aroma and flavour when crushed/chewed.  You can make a tea from the dried fruits/berries. 

A similar low-growing, prostrate, red-berried shrub with evergreen leaves, Creeping Partridge-berry (Mitchella repens).  Perhaps the most distinct feature  of Partridge-berry is the light colouration along the leaf mid-rib.

 Another species which grows prostrate and low to the ground, Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) is also a member of the Wintergreen family.  It can be found on the fringe of wetland or waterbody features.  I think I saw all four of these 'similar' species growing within 10m of one another beneath Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), White Oak (Quercus alba) and among more or less continuous sedge carpet.  It's a pretty awesome spot.  There are three other Pyrola species known to Waterloo Region (P. americana, P. asarifolia and P. chlorantha - all regionally rare).

Common Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) otherwise known as Prince's-Pine is also a member of the Wintergreen family.  It's often associated with pine and oak forests.  Where the flowers of Shinleaf are spread along a stalk, those of Pipsissewa essentially droop from the top of the stalk.

Alongside one of the trails this green Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) sapling caught my eye.  As the second photo shows, the green really sticks out (especially against my thread-bare field pants).  This fragrant tree is sometimes called the mitten tree as the leaves often take the form of a mitten with a smaller 'thumb' lobe sticking out to one (or two) sides of the larger lobe.  Leaves with two 'thumbs' look alot like those of Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).  The foliage turns a bright red in fall.

A shot of the deeply fissured bark.  

Another cool find for the day, Squawroot (Conopholis americana). This species is parasitic on oak roots.  In season, the cream coloured 'cones' are a little more attractive than the crunchy brown remnants that you find at this time of year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

More from Fanshawe Lake

The other day at Fanshawe Lake, in search of a better vantage point for birding, I came across a neat area of seepage slope at the north end of the lake which I had never seen before.  I'll definitely be back next spring/summer when I'm visiting the folks.   At least then I won't have to resort to picking through decaying or dessicated plants.  Until then, I'll take what I can get.  This spot just stands out as botanically unique for the area.

Watching my footing as I descended the slope down towards the lake I started seeing oak leaves on the ground that I'm more accustomed to seeing further south toward Lake Erie.  With a quick scan of the trees in the immediate area I soon found what I was looking for, a small grove of Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii).  This species of oak can be found all over Point Pelee and Pelee Island but I had never seen it this far up the Thames River before.  It's considered vulnerable in Middlesex County.  It's also known as Yellow Chestnut Oak; you can see how the leaf margins kind of resemble American Chestnut.

The upper portion of mature Chinquapin Oak tends to grow a little wonky.  You really notice this in the stands at Pelee where you have a number of trees altogether growing like a corkscrew turned to the sky.

A shot of the platy, rough bark on a mature tree.

Once I had finished Chinquapin hunting I continued further down the slope and came across an often overlooked maple species.  Black Maple (Acer nigrum) resembles Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and apparently the two can hybridize.  I've found the leave of black tend to be less 'toothy' and have more rounded edges, the foliage of black appears droopy or wilting, and the leaves are notably pubescent (as shown in the second picture below).  Black has more of an affinity for lower slopes and floodplains where sugar prefers more upland habitat (although it can be found in some surprisingly wet soils at times).

What sparked my interest in returning next year (when herbaceous plants are a little more lively) was the canopy opening halfway down the slope where a sizable seepage area shows some potential for interesting species.

While nothing too special at this time (we are after all now officially into winter), there's no harm in a little post-winter solstice botanical inventory.  The dominant herbaceous species within the seep is Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago patula).  I tried to use a cedar backdrop to show the wide-spreading inflorescence.  The latin 'patula' means spreading.

The larger leaves at the base of the plant, and part way up the stem have winged petioles and are scabrous (like sandpaper).  Check out these dead leaves!  I feed the dogs better scraps than these!

Another wet species, Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) was growing here and there within the clearing.  Lobelia is named after the Swedish botanist Mattias de L'Obel, and it was believed to be a cure for syphilis.  The alkaloid lobeline is a cure for muscle aches.  It's pretty neat actually, lobeline is very similar to nicotine but where nicotine causes blood vessels to contract, lobeline causes them to dilate.  By the way, in high doses it can lead to convulsions, a coma or death so maybe stick to the balm if your back hurts.

The basal leaves of Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum).

Dead stems of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima).  This plant is toxic to animals, including cattle, and can be passed on to humans through milk.  Abraham Lincoln's mother died of this condition known as milk sickness.

At the right time of year this spot would be quite colourful, among the green patches of sedges, the yellow of the goldenrod, the blue of lobelia, the pink of thistle, and the white of the snakeroot and Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) shown below.  Turtlehead is the host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) butterfly.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hiking Fanshawe Lake

I went for a hike this morning at Fanshawe Lake, just northeast of London.  These trails (and the river), which I've hiked/biked (canoed) a thousand times are owned and managed by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.  If I had to point to something instrumental in sparking my interest in the natural world, the Thames River between St. Marys and London would be it. 

I was in search of open water today and hoping to get some feathered material to post here.  Well, before I got my camera mounted to the tripod the lone Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) which was loafing at the edge of the open water among 800 or so other waterfowl flew off (Fanshawe Lake is immediately below the flight path of airplanes coming and going from London International Airport so birds tends to scare up regularly).  The result, a crappy digi-scoped shot.

As I was scanning the water, I heard a rattle to my left which turned out to be Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia).  This shrub is fairly common along the Thames River, and it tends to form thickets as a result of its clonal growth.  Below are a few of the dried seed capsules which contain one to several seeds.  This shrub could be confused with Hop-tree (Ptelea trifoliata) but Bladdernut has opposite leaves and finely serrated margins on the leaves.  The fruits are also quite different, the bladder-like capsules versus planar, wafer-thin seeds of Hop-tree.

The seeds of Bladdernut are extremely hard, kind of like popcorn kernels.  I'm sure they could remain dormant in the soil for decades before germinating.  I tried propagating a handful of seeds once and gave them a rough sanding before burying them.  No results to report thus far, I'll keep you posted.

The buds are relatively large, and the mature stems tend to get dark/light lines which are fairly distinct among other forest understory shrubs and tree saplings.

I also spotted this Northern Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) sleeping on the trail.  The latin brevis and cauda translates to short-tail.  They have poisonous saliva which they use to paralyze prey (including prey notably larger than themselves) and store it for later consumption.  They feed primarily on earthworms, which is good, given that research is suggesting that earthworms are destroying the organic layer of forest floors.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bootleggers and Butterflies

There was an article in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record yesterday about the role that local brewers and distillers played during the Prohibition Era in the U.S..  It was an interesting read and shed light on Seagrams Distillery and the bootlegging of beer and whisky between Waterloo and Windsor/Amherstburg, then across the border.

Some of the remaining Seagrams buildings in Waterloo have been re-purposed as swanky loft apartments and think-tanks, but there's also a site between Kitchener and Guelph which was once home to their warehouse facility.  Today it's just cracked pavement, a reservoir which was built for fire suppression and a whole lot of old field meadow.

In 2010, the year I took the photos below, it seemed at though you couldn't walk 100m without spotting a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).  Nettles are the host plant for this species  (Urtica spp., Laportea canadensis).  This aggressive and territorial butterfly is widespread and also occurs in Europe and Asia.

Another species, Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) feeds on willow (Salix spp.) and poplar (Populus spp.).  This butterfly is often confused with Monarch (Danaus plexippus) but is smaller and has a distinct black line running across the forewing and hindwing.  There are arguments that the appearance of Viceroy has evolved to mimic Monarch, an unpalatable species (Batesian mimicry), and there are also arguments that Viceroy itself is unpalatable to predators through sequestering acids derived from willows and poplars (Müllerian mimicry).


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hickory Dickory Dock

As an extension to the last post I made about Shumard Oak in Essex County, we were also encountering a fair amount of hickory in the forests and swamps including Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa), otherwise known as Kingnut.  I first saw Shellbark in the Blenheim area and what stood out was the persistent leaf petioles (stems).  On some twigs it seems you can get up to 3, 4, 5 years' growth as shown in the pictures below.  This is especially easy to spot once the leaves have fallen.  Shellbark is quite similar to Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); both have deeply peeling bark and can be found in the same mesic to wet habitats although Shagbark is often found on drier soils as well.  Shellbark tends to have 7-9 leaflets (versus 5), persistent petioles, larger fruits with minimal indentation at the margin of each husk (versus smaller, indented husks), and an orange hue to both the buds and pedicels.

This species is restricted to counties on the north shore of Lake Erie where it can be found on rich floodplain forests and bottomlands.  The fruits are generally the largest of our hickories, I've seen one roughly the size of a tennis ball, imagine hitting that with a lawn mower.  The creviced bark of Shellbark (as well as Shagbark) is used by bats during the summer for roosting.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shumard Oak

My co-worker Andrew and I spent a couple of days last week in Essex County and were treated to spending some time in bottomlands and swamps with good stands of Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii).  This rare oak is a species of Special Concern both provincially and federally.  Morsink and Pratt (1984) estimated there to be about 500 scattered Shumard oak in Essex County.  It has a strong resemblance to red oak (Quercus rubra) and black oak (Quercus velutina).

The distinctive/characteristic features that I have pulled together from a number of sources include:
  • the leaves are generally deeply lobed and shiny, notably more lobed than red oak
  • acorn caps are shallow and the acorns fairly large
  • buds are large and somewhat waxy looking
  • foliage in the fall is a vibrant crimson colour and trees tend to hold the leaves longer than other oaks
  • grows in clay plains, mesic to moist soils including wetlands
Red oak was certainly present at the sites we were visiting; a quick scan of the dead leaves and you could see both red and Shumard present in the leaf litter.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Slender Knotweed

I was at the Pinery in September checking out some dune openings in the east end of the park and came across a species new to me.  Slender knotweed (Polygonum tenue) is a rare, and not-so-showy plant found in sandy prairie, savanna and woodland habitats. The plant in this photo is about to flower.

The genus Polygonum comes from the latin Poly = many and gony = knee or joint.  Thus the term knotweed.  I guess slender jointweed would have other connotations.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Snake slithers into a bar...

...bartender says "I can't serve you".  The snake says "Well why not?".  The bartender says "You can't hold your liquor!"

Here's a photo from June this year of a couple of eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) alongside a Dekay's brownsnake (Storeria dekayi).  These guys would have recently emerged from an underground hibernacula (creviced rock, foundations, even rodent holes) after which they bask, feed and mate.  

Monday, December 8, 2014


The Society for Ecological Restoration held their world conference in Madison, Wisconsin last October and Alyssa and I went to check it out with a brief stop in Chicago on the way.

I enjoyed the conference, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't skip a few seminars to get in some top notch botanizing.  For weeks, months, I had read up on the natural areas of the state, even plotted a few potential routes.  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a great website that catalogues each State Natural Area (there are 673 of them) and provides juicy details on what you can expect to find there, along with access and maps.

The sad part about the whole excursion was that my Canon DSLR decided to start kicking the bucket somewhere near the Michigan-Indiana border, I blame Gary, IN.  Forbes ranked it #20 on America's most miserable cities list.  Anyways, in addiiton to all the memories etched in my mind, here are a few photos...most of the photos, that my dying and undependable camera managed to capture.

Here Alyssa enjoys the awesome expanse that is the Avoca Prairie, a sand outwash prairie on the banks of the Wisconsin River.  It's the largest natural tallgrass prairie west of the Mississippi!

And home to a healthy population of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), a target plant I had for the trip.  So crazy to see this stuff growing in the wild by the thousands.

Another stop, the Pleasant Valley Conservancy.  Look at that savanna, that's what I'm talking about.  I've been following Tom's Blog for years, really great to see the effort being put into managing/stewarding these sites.

The Mazomanie Oak Barrens sounded promising so I gave it a shot one afternoon.  After passing through a grove of pine at the parking lot, what's the first herbaceous plant I lay eyes on?

 Virgina Goat's Rue (Tephrosia virginiana)! I know, pretty awesome eh?  This plant is only known from Norfolk County in Ontario, it's Endangered provincially and federally.  I've seen it at Turkey Point, but here it was just another common groundcover species...along with hundreds of other plants that I wish I could have photographed and shared here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Early Old Man

Here are a couple of pictures of Robin's Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) from the Burford area.  This composite closely resembles a few other rather common fleabane species; Annual Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) and Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus). 

I tend to see this species in part-sun, usually well-drained soils, and often among a sedge carpet.  In general, oak-hickory woodland or within forest clearings or along trails, but that's just my experience.

Robin's plantain blooms mid-spring to early-summer.  I have a patch (it grows clonally via stolons) in my front garden which consistently gets two bloom periods, one spring and one fall.  As for identifying it, I've always found the dark green wrinkled leaves to be a giveaway, that coupled with the densely wooly flowering stems and perhaps the habitat.  The flowers can vary from white to pink to mauve, but essentially white.  The leaves look kind of like African violet leaves if you've seen those on window sills.

 Fleabane got it's name as it was once believed that it repelled fleas.  Does that mean dogbane repels dogs?  Just looked into it, the dogbane genus, Apocynum translates to 'Away dog' or 'poisonous to dogs'.  The genus Erigeron comes form the latin 'eri' meaning early and 'geron' meaning old man, with the species 'pulchellus' meaning beautiful.  Beautiful, early old man, there you have it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Erie Beach Park

I thought I would put up a couple of neat pictures from Erie Beach Park which I posted about a few days back.  It's pretty cool to see how nature reclaims something after the casino, concession stands and choo choo train rides rides ceased to exist, back came the big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata) and Fowler's toad (Anaxyris fowleri).

Check out some of these links with photos of the old amusement park.  You can see the children's swimming pool in my first picture: 1, 2, 3.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can you say "Dichanthelium dichotomum var. dichotomum" Three Times Fast?


I bought a microscope off kijiji a while back.  It was an interesting transaction that involved looking through an old guy's 15 year portfolio of microscope photography of bacteria before handing him a wad of twenties and scoring a nice little setup.

It's come in handy for identifying things and documenting with photos, like this grass I found in Brant County back in June.  It's spreading panic grass (Dichanthelium dichotomum var. dichotomum) a panic grass that's listed as S2 in the province (5-20 occurences).  Apparently it hasn't been recorded in the county for at least 20 years so that's pretty alright.

The habitat I found it in was dominated by pignut hickory (Carya glabra) - a rare tree species that you see occasionally along the Grand River between Cambridge down to Brantford, red oak (Quercus rubra), white oak (Quercus alba) and black oak (Quercus velutina).  Whenever I see white oak or black oak in this part of Ontario I take it as a good indicator that you're into something good, or at least there's potential.  I also came across cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare).

Apparently Panicum and Dichanthelium were split based upon length of the terminal panicle (the seedy bit at the top).  The split is right about 10cm, greater than and you're looking at a Panicum, less than and you're looing at a Dichanthelium.  This is only a chunk of the plant, the rest (and all it's siblings) are back in Brant.

It's the spikelets that make this one stick out, completely glabrous (smooth).  Since we're talking dichotomous, check out how quickly this dichotomous key points you to spreading panic grass.  Pretty convenient for a group as daunting as panic grasses, and pretty cool that it's a rare one!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Botany at the Amusement Park

In 2010 I did some work in Fort Erie at the site of an old amusement park known as Erie Beach Park.  It operated between 1885 and 1930 and included attractions like a casino, swimming pool overlooking Lake Erie, and a tugboat ride.  It was really quite something to see how the site had reverted back to nature and as it turned out a number of cool plants can be found along the beach.

Biennial gaura (Oenothera gaura) is a fairly uncommon plant, listed as S3 in Ontario.  The similar looking large-flowered gaura (Gaura longiflora) has short hairs, appressed to the stem in comparison to the wiry, wide-spreading hairs of biennial gaura.  The species is often found in disturbed sites, this one was in a pile of rubble from one of the old amusement park buildings.  

The next two photos are groundnut (Apios americana), otherwise known as indian potato.  The tuberous root of this plant is edible when cooked and is apparently quite nutritious.  First Nations groups throughout the plant's range incorporated it into their regular diet.  The flowers are coiled up and unfurl by splitting open, really strange.  A similar plant, hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is best distinguished by trifoliate leaves (3 instead of 5) and it's flowers are white and somewhat different from those of groundnut.

In an earlier post I had a photo of a post-flowering fringed gentian, here we have bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii).  The things you find when you tuck into the woods to answer the call of nature.  I've always found the foliage resembles the non-native bouncing-bet (Saponaria officinalis).  The flowers of bottle gentian never actually open, bumblebees peel the petals apart and get right in there to pollinate.