by Art Carson
Collected articles from a column published in the local Valemount weekly newspaper in 1986. The 14 articles are arranged in alphabetical order of latin generic names of the plants. Newspaper readers saw these same photos in blotchy black and white; I've gone back to the color originals here. Photos by the author except as noted.
Disclaimer: I wasn't as good at identifying plant species back then as I am now (and some scientific names have changed over the years). Names with an asterisk have been updated and/or corrected below the article. -Art
columbianum)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
September 10, 1986, page 6
Starlight Range, Jasper National Park, Alberta
As summer draws to a close, one of the last visible splashes of bright colour in the high alpine meadows of our area is the persistent blue of the Monkshood. The ones in the photo are growing at the extreme upper limit of their range at about 7,500 feet elevation and are only about 6 inches tall, unlike the 2-foot tall specimens found in lower regions near the timberline. This flashy member of the buttercup family has large royal blue flowers climbing a tall stalk. Each flower has a hood-shaped upper sepal, and the leaves are similar to those of the common buttercup. Look for Monkshood in alpine and subalpine meadows from July to early September. "Columbianum" means "of Columbia" and refers specifically to the Columbia River; however in our immediate region these flowers are somewhat easier to find to the north of Highway 16. Like other buttercups, the plant is poisonous. It is the source of the drug "Aconite", which is used in medicine as a sedative and also to reduce heart rate.
*Later re-identified as Mountain Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium).
WESTERN ANEMONE (Anemone
occidentalis) - Canoe Mountain Echo,
September 10, 1986, page 6
Dave Henry Creek, BC
A familiar sight in the late summer Alpine country is the massed seed-heads of the Western Anemone or "Towhead Baby", a fairly distant relative of the buttercup. One of at least 14 species of Anemone in the Rockies, the Western Anemone has large 6-petalled white flowers with yellow centres, borne singly on a stalk which is only about 3 inches tall at first, but grows taller throughout the summer. The wooly seed-heads ultimately dance in the breeze about 14 inches above the carrot-like leaves. The Greek word "anemos" means "breeze"; there is an old legend which says that the flowers open at the command of the spring breezes. More recently, scientists have noticed that these and many other alpine flowers have a parabolic shape - they act as tiny "dish antennae" that track the sun and pick up solar energy to warm the developing seeds within. Many pollinating insects, too, take advantage of the warm flower interiors to bask in the sun. Temperatures inside such a flower can be as much as 10 degrees celsius warmer than outside. The native peoples of some parts of Western North America used Anemone roots for treating wounds, and attributed to them powerful healing qualities. The whole plant contains Anemonin, a poison which affects the central nervous system.
WESTERN ANEMONE (Anemone
ocidentalis) - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 15, 1986, page 10
Blueberry Creek, Holmes River Watershed, BC
A previous photo in this column showed the seed heads of the Western Anemone. Although it's already been dealt with in these articles, this springtime shot gives a somewhat different impression of the plant, before the flower stalks attain their full height.
luzuloides)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 22, 1986, page 5
Dave Henry Creek, BC (a photo of Arctic Bog Laurel Kalmia microphylla appeared in the newspaper here by mistake - it appears below this article)
If one should come across a plant in our area which has long, fuzzy gray-green leaves and clusters of dry, ball-shaped petal-less flowers, it is very likely to be Pussytoes, one of the English names given to several species of Antennaria found in this region. Along roadsides, in poor soil and waste places, Antennaria rosea may be found. Its flower heads are white, occasionally varying to pink or having a circle of rose-colored bracts surrounding each little ball of minute flowers. At higher elevations A. luzuloides is common. It does not cover the ground with mats of it leaves, but grows several stems each year from a woody root-crown at the soil level. A. dimorpha is a tiny, early-flowering variety of Pussytoes which covers poor soils such as old mill-yards with patches of fuzzy grey carpeting. If picked soon after blooming, the flowers dry well and keep all winter long. If the white colour which nature imparted to them isn't exciting enough, they may be dyed many colours before being placed in dried flower arrangements. Some species were utilized by members of certain Indian tribes who prepared a kind of chewing gum from an extract of the stalks. Most flowering plants have flowers which contain both male and female reproductive components, with some species capable of self-fertilization (pollination) within one flower, and some requiring cross pollination from flower to flower. Pussytoes, however, are usually distinctly male or female, and many of them are capable of producing viable seeds without any pollination at all. In these species of Antennaria, the male plants are often very rare, and in the case of a few species, not a single male plant has ever been found. In contrast to cross-pollinated plants which might, for instance, end up with "Mother's skinny leaves and great-grandfather's petal spots", these Pussytoes will all be identical "clones" of the female parent plant. The Pussytoes are members of the composite family, a vast and varied group of plants that usually have two kinds of flowers: a group of tiny, tightly-packed "discflowers" (such as the centre of a Daisy) surrounded by a circle of petal-like "rayflowers"(the petals of a Daisy) which serve to visually attract insects to the central disc of fertile discflowers. Some composites, including the Pussytoes, have no rayflowers. Usually this is a sign that pollination is accomplished by crawling insects or others which do not have to be signalled at a great distance, as would be the case with flying insects - or that pollination isn't even necessary in some cases! Plants with this remarkable ability for "virgin birth", as it were, are referred to as being "parthenocarpic".
*Later re-identified as Wooly Pussytoes (Antennaria lanata)
BOG LAUREL (Kalmia microphylla)
- Canoe Mountain Echo, October 22,
1986, page 5
Dave Henry Creek, BC
FAIRYSLIPPER (Calypso bulbosa) -
Canoe Mountain Echo, October 8, 1986,
Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC (Winnie Carson photo - I erroneously credited this photo to Lynne Carson in the newspaper)
Spring comes early for readers of the "Wildflowers" column this week - I will be presenting spring flowers for the next several weeks. So, as an antidote to the coming wintry weather, here's something to think about (or cut out for future reference): one of our most exotic spring wildflowers, the Fairyslipper. This orchid has a small, shallow-growing bulb and one small round leaf which sprouts each year near ground level, to be followed in early June by a four to six inch stalk bearing an exquisite pink flower similar to a Lady's Slipper. The plant is fairly common in forests of Douglas Fir and other trees on fairly dry, sunny slopes. It usually grows among mosses. However, because of its eye-catching beauty, its single leaf, and a very fragile root system, it is considered to be an endangered species. Please look at it, photograph it (carefully) or whatever, but leave it as you found it. The glutinous bulbs were used for food by native peoples and have a mild, sweet taste when raw, although rather sticky. Your reporter is guilty of digging up and tasting a few, my excuse being that they were growing in the right-of-way for a water line to be excavated a few days later. Snacking on them while hiking would be very destructive and inappropriate. Transplanting is also to be discouraged, as the sensitive root systems don't usually survive such treatment, and the plant's habitat requirements are somewhat restricted. The seeds won't sprout unless they are in soil containing certain kinds of fungi which appear to stimulate germination. Sometimes very vigorous Fairyslipper colonies will pop up out of the side of a new road or trail where a bulldozer has by chance spread a mixture of soil and organic debris in a thin layer on top of an old group of bulbs - a strange chemistry of delicacy and brute force. The Orchid family is one of the largest and most varied plant families on earth, but none of our local types of wild Orchids are particularly abundant. They can, however, be found in almost any environment, wet or dry, valley bottom to alpine meadow. A rare flesh-coloured Fairyslipper variety has occasionally been seen locally. The only known large colonies of the flesh-colored type are near Anacortes, Washington.
QUEENCUP (Clintonia uniflora) - Canoe
Mountain Echo, September 24, 1986, page 4
Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC (this photo unpublished)
Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC
Moist woods are the habitat of this small and charming Lily. The slender stems of this plant creep unseen through the forest litter just below the surface, so that large colonies of these Lilies often carpet the ground among the trees. In the spring a group of two to five long, parallel-veined leaves emerges, stemless, directly out of the damp soil. From the centre of the group of leaves rises a thin stalk about three to six inches tall bearing a brilliant white star-shaped flower about an inch across. The attentions of nectar-seeking insects eventually result in the development of a single metallic-blue berry perched atop the central stalk. Although bitter and unpalatable to man, it is accepted as food by the ruffed grouse. In different parts of the country and at different elevations the time of flowering of various species of wild plants may vary considerably. However in any given area the timing of one event in nature often coincides with other occurrences in the natural cycle of things. According to famed naturalists John and Frank Craighead, for instance, when the Queencup blooms, Dolly Varden Trout are beginning to migrate to their spawning beds in nearby rivers and streams. All of the species I've described in these articles so far have been perennials - that is they survive for many years rather than just a single season as the annuals do. However, as in the case of the two lilies described this week, it's often only the parts below the ground that carry on, surviving through the winter on stored food with their life forces at a low ebb, long after the year's visible growth has fallen to the ground and decayed. The Queencup is sometimes called One-flowered Clintonia, a direct translation of its scientific name. Clinton was a former Governor of the State of New York.
WESTERN BUNCHBERRY (Cornus
unalaskensis)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
November 26, 1986, page 2
Western Bunchberry and a leaf of Clematis, Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC
Few people will fail to recognize the orange-red fruit of the Bunchberry, as it splashes the forest floor with colour in late fall. This small member of the Dogwood family bears little resemblance to B.C.'s floral emblem, but the large Dogwood trees of coastal regions are in fact quite a close relative. In spring, each small whorl of leaves is topped by what appears to be a single white flower with four petals, two being slightly smaller than the other two. This is in fact a group of four "bracts", or modified leaves, which have taken over the insect-attracting function. The real flowers are very small, and form a cluster in the centre of the four white bracts. Later, the orange fruit develops from these. The clusters of berries are edible, but rather bland. All living things have within each of their cells a set of instructions, in complete detail, for building all the parts of the organism and organizing them into a living system. In the case of our Western Bunchberry, however, the message has gotten somewhat garbled. In the past, probably before the last Ice Age, there were two species of Bunchberry, now known as Canada Bunchberry and Northern Bunchberry, neither of which grow in our area now. Cross-pollination between these two plants normally produces offspring which are not fertile, because the genetic messages from the two parents are too different to combine into a normal offspring. It seems that one day, an accidental error in cell division in one of these cross-bred infertile Bunchberry plants resulted in two complete copies of the "instruction book" from each parent being included in each of the crossed plant's cells. Now each parental "instruction book" had an identical one to combine with, and - presto! This one crossbred plant became fertile. It was not only fertile, but it was totally incapable of being pollinated by any other Bunchberry plant in the world, since it had a double set of genetic instructions in it, and was too different from other Bunchberries to cross with them at all. It could only pollinate itself, which it did. The resulting seeds grew into plants just like the original strange cross-breed, and turned out to be hardy and vigorous. It is evident that all the Bunchberry plants now found in the southern half of B.C. are descendants of this one self-pollinating "freak" plant. All have its mark within them: Twice the normal number of "instructions" in their "assembly manuals".
*Current botanical name is Cornus canadensis.
COTTON GRASS (Eriophorum
callitrix) - Canoe Mountain Echo,
September 17, 1986 page 4
Berg Lake, BC - Lynne Carson Photo
Many a boggy meadow in the mountains of our region is brightened by the pure white cottony tufts of the cotton grass, a member of the Sedge family. Easily overlooked in early summer, this plant doesn't stand out among other grasses and sedges until the tufts develop, around mid-August. As in all sedges, the stem is roughly triangular, unlike the stems of grasses, which are usually two-sided (oval) or round. The plant is 6 to 16 inches high (your author does not yet "think metric") with grasslike leaves surrounding the central stem, which supports the tuft of hair-covered seeds waiting to be blown over some nearby mountain pass on the breeze. Unlike the "parachutes" of dandelions, thistles, etc. which develop on top of each seed, the wooly hairs of cotton grass develop at the base of the ovary and are actually modified flower petals and sepals.
GLACIER LILY (Erythronium
grandiflorum) - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 15, 1986, page 10
Near Bulldog Canyon, Kinbasket Lake, BC
Of the many species of the Lily family in the Rocky Mountains, none put on a more spectacular display than the Glacier Lily. When the snowbanks are nearly gone in mid to late June, a yellow glow is seen from afar as this ground-carpeting plant follows the snowline up the alpine slopes, covering vast areas of the high country with its yellow trumpets and shiny leaves. Deeply buried bulbs give rise to two glossy leaves and a central stalk eight to ten inches high, which supports one to several of the yellow flowers. The flowers are about an inch across, and hang downwards from the curved stems. This prolific plant was an important source of food for our earliest people who boiled or dried the bulbs, used the leaves for greens, and ate the immature seed pods, which when boiled are reported to taste like string beans. The Tartars of Asia used the bulbs of a purple-flowered variety of Erythronium for food, boiling them with milk or broth. This reporter suggests that readers ought to use moderation in any culinary experimenting with these plants, in these times of increasing human pressure on the slow- healing alpine environment. Bears eat the bulbs, and small rodents often cache them for winter. Deer, Rocky Mountain Goat and Bighorn Sheep as well as Elk and possibly Mountain Caribou graze on the foliage. The plant is also referred to as Dogtooth Violet, Fawnlily, Snow Lily, Adder's Tongue, and goodness knows what else. The scientific names you see under each photo are the result of attempts to create international understanding about what plant is what, so that a botanist from Switzerland, for example, can refer to an obscure little weed that grows in siberia, and his colleague from Japan will immediately know where the plant fits into the organized scheme of plant nomenclature. There's still some disagreement at the level of individual species - some botanists tend to lump similar plants together as one species, while others consider plants with only very slight differences to be of different species. This battle of the lumpers and splitters has been going on ever since the ninteenth century and even before that. But for all that, almost any plant in the world can be talked about, using a scientific name, and little confusion will result. Unlike the scene that would ensue if five people found this week's plant growing in a different place and tried to compare notes - but each one knew it by a different English name from the mouthful quoted above! "Grandiflorum" means "large-leaved".
GLACIER LILY (Erythronium
grandiflorum) - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 15, 1986, page 9
Carpet of Glacier Lilies at 6,500 feet near Bulldog Canyon.
WHITE REIN ORCHIS (Habenaria
borealis)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 29, 1986, page 2
Dave Henry Pass, BC
This beautiful white-flowered orchid grows in open bogs, marshes, and other very wet places at all elevations. A single thick stem rises straight up from the underground bulb, with slender, pointed leaves angling upward from the base and alternating up the stem. Finally a dense spike of waxy white flowers rises above the surrounding marsh vegetation. The plant shows considerable variation, most of which is hereditary - that is, it is handed down from previous generations. One may find a large group of these flowers all looking more or less alike, while not far away another group might have, for example, slightly more greenish flowers or a small difference in leaf shape. All this makes it hard for botanists to decide how many species there are, and we find the lumpers and splitters battling it out again. Some botanists recognize eight or more species of Habenaria in the Rocky Mountains alone. A few other orchids of the bogs could be mistaken for the White Rein Orchis: for example, Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffia) also has a white flower spike. However its flower head has a spiral arrangement of the blooms, unlike the straight vertical pattern found in the White Rein's flowers. Like all North American wild orchids, the White Rein Orchis has an edible bulb, which could concievably be used as emergency food. It has been used as food by northern peoples of both hemispheres, such as the Yakut of Siberia and the Inuit and Dene of North America. The author of one of my guide books states rather unenthusiastically that "when boiled for about half an hour they taste like frozen potatoes". In any case, orchids are generally rather rare, and better on film than on the table. "Borealis" means "northern".
*Later re-identified as Habenaria dilatata, now known as Platanthera dilatata.
SKUNK CABBAGE (Lysichitum
americanum)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
October 8, 1986, page 5
Beside Highway 16 at Dome Creek access road, BC (erroneously identified as Penny access road in the newspaper)
The Skunk Cabbage is an unusual plant of boggy areas and timbered swamps. In very early spring, a conspicuous yellow flower stalk emerges from the marsh, before any leaves are to be seen. This is enclosed in a sheath called a "spathe", which unrolls to reveal a structure of hundreds of tiny flowers, the same colour as the rest of the plant. The leaves push up next, rolled up like cigars - the photo shows spathe, flower stalk, and an emerging leaf. The leaves often reach a length of five feet and a breadth of sixteen inches, the largest of any wild plant in our area. Skunk cabbage belongs to the Arum family, which includes Taro, the staple food of many Polynesian peoples. Members of the Arum family have been used for food by many people throughout the world. In an earlier time, Indians roasted and dried skunk cabbage and also made flour from its starch. Like the other members of the Arum family, all parts of the plant contain crystals of calcium oxalate which sting and burn the mouth if the plant is eaten raw. Heating makes the plant fit to eat by rearranging the crystal structure and/or breaking down the crystals. Today, most people would be deterred from eating the plant by its name alone. Its definite odor of skunk is a further deterrent. All in all, it would seem that this is a survival food only. Black bears eat the entire plant - leaves, seeds, and roots. The ursine equivalent of a hot Mexican dish, perhaps? See you next week.
*Proper spelling is Lysichiton americanus.
FLY-SPOTTED ORCHIS (Orchis
rotundifolia)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
November 5, 1986, page 2
Rockingham Campground near Mt. Fitzwilliam, Mount Robson park, BC
Perhaps the strangest of all the wild orchids of our region is the Fly- spotted Orchis. Arising from its small bulb as springtime comes, it at first resembles the more common Fairyslipper, with a single rounded leaf and a flower stem rising above. The leaf, however, is larger than that of the Fairyslipper, and when the flowers burst forth in June, July or August, the plant reveals itself to be something really unique. Instead of a single slipper-like blossom, a group of three to five startling pink flowers emerges, each one looking for all the world like tiny cutout paper doll with a wee face, two outstretched arms, and two dainty feet peeking from under a polka-dot dress of red and pink. Although quite rare, they may occur in a great mass in some favourable spot in the rich, moist soil of a forest of mixed tree species, where they rise above the moss-covered surface in the little glades. These flowers can bring squeals of delight from young children, who immediately perceive the little dolls in pretty dresses, in contrast to the less imaginative adult who gave them the most unflattering English name of any Orchid around. Perhaps letting the child push the button for a colour photograph might alleviate the overwhelming desire to pick them. A moot point, particularly in the case of one population of these flowers which has suddenly become more accessible. They can be found in openings of the forest near the confluence of Rockingham Creek and Fitzwilliam Creek in Mount Robson Park, where the new Mount Fitzwilliam trail has created easy access for day hikers. It is hoped that increased use of the area will not be to the detriment of these and other remarkable wildflowers found there. "Rotundifolia" means "round-leafed".
*Now known as Amerorchis rotundifolia.
GOOSEBERRY (Ribes inerme)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
December 3, 1986, page 3
Wild Black Goseberry (Ribes inerme) - fruit, Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC
Most of the rushing mountain streams of our area are extensively lined on both banks by the Wild Black Gooseberry. Its prickly stems survive the winter weather to sprout bunches of lobed leaves similar to those of the domestic gooseberry. Sprays of interesting pink and white bell-shaped flowers give way to hanging clusters of shiny black fruit. The berries make excellent jam and jelly (the author prepared several jars this fall), and when fully ripe it is fairly tasty to eat raw. The fruit develops best in the stream-side environment, often arching tantalizingly out of reach over fast water. Un-fruited or poorly fruited bushes can be found much further from the streams. The "Ribes" (or currant and gooseberry) family is a large one, with at least 25 species in the Rockies alone. Various books and botanists can't seem to agree on their scientific names. The scientific name given under the photo is a tentative one, and I stand to be corrected*. Other "Ribes" species in our area include a non-prickly currant bush with powdery-blue currants, which covers great patches of some logged-off areas above 4,000 feet (possibly Ribes petiolare), and a white-flowered greenish gosseberry which I have seen in wooded parts of the R.W. Starratt Wildlife Conservancy and on some wet avalanche slopes in Packsaddle Creek Canyon (most likely Ribes lacustre). The White Pine Blister Rust fungus, which attacks the 5-needle types of pine trees, must spend one stage of its life cycle on some species of Ribes. In some areas of the United States, it is illegal to cultivate currants and gooseberries because of the threat to commercially valuable pines. Valemount lies at the northern limit of the range of the Wester White Pine, and no such legislation exists here.
* The plant in the photo (and the subject of the above description) was later identified as Ribes lacustre. The non-prickly variety described above was later identified as Ribes laxiflorum, and the green-fruited variety as Ribes oxycanthoides.
FALSE SOLOMON'S SEAL (Smilacina
amplexicaulis)* - Canoe Mountain Echo,
September 24, 1986, Page 4
Near McKirdy Creek, Valemount, BC
Of the many species of the Lily family which are found in the woodlands of our area, the most common and possibly the showiest is the False Solomon's Seal. Early in the spring, large vigorous shoots push up from a deeply buried rootstock, and throughout late April and early May a single stem arches upward, with long oval leaves bursting forth alternately to the left and right. Finally a pure white flower emerges from the tip, to attract cross-pollinating insects with its glow in the dim forest glades. The plant grows in great masses where conditions are ideal, such as in rich, moist soil in an open deciduous forest by a stream. Here it often reaches a height of five feet; in less favourable locations it frequently survives in a somewhat stunted condition, and except for the driest of Jackpine flats, there are few places in our valley where one couldn't find at least a few struggling specimens. As in most of our Lilies, the leaves have parallel veins that are seen to run the full length of the leaf without branching out. The flower heads develop into clusters of speckled greenish berries which later turn a brilliant translucent red. Each contains a large, smooth white seed designed to pass unharmed through the digestive tracts of birds and mammals, to be deposited far away along with a convenient supply of fertilizer. When fully ripe the berries are outrageously sweet, but otherwise not particularly flavourful. Some authorities state that if eaten in large quantities they can have a considerable laxative effect, perhaps another adaptation to promote the particular method these plants use to propagate their seeds. The new spring shoots are edible, and some people in the valley harvest a few each year, preparing them as for Asparagus. Their slight bitterness is disguised by serving with Mayonnaise, in which case the Author finds them to be pleasantly Asparagus-flavoured. However a word of caution must be included here: the poisonous False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), a large lily which grows at high elevations, has somewhat similar-looking shoots, and at least two cases of poisoning occurred in the Valemount area in 1987 as a result of eating False Hellebore mistaken for False Solomon's Seal. Positive identification is not too difficult, however - the False Hellebore seldom grows below an elevation of 4000 feet in this area, and it has much larger and fatter shoots. There are no known poisonous Lilies in the valley bottom. The roots contain a history of the plant as each root pokes up one new shoot per year, next to the scar from the previous year's shoot and those of all previous years in a twisting line through the soil. "Smilacina" means "like Smilax" (the Solomon's seal of eastern North America). "Amplexicaulis" means "clasping stem": the entire year's growth including the flower head is present in the shoot as it emerges from the ground.
*Now known as Maianthemum racemosum ssp. amplexicaule.
MOUNTAIN ASH (Sorbus sitchensis)
- Canoe Mountain Echo, September 17,
1986, page 4
Emerald Ridge near Moose Lake, Mount Robson Park, BC
Moist, open forests at all elevations are the habitat of the wild Mountain Ash. This large shrub or small tree starts its summer off with large, flat-topped clusters of white flowers. These are replaced later on by brilliant red berries which persist on the bush throughout the winter. Although the berries are bitter, it is reported that early settlers sometimes made jam and jelly from them. Many Indian tribes made use of them also. Mountain Ash berries are still utilized by the peoples of parts of Europe and Asia; across the Pacific from us, the berries are sometimes dried and ground into meal by people of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Soviet Union. Grouse eat the berries, as do black bears. Like some other members of the Rose family, the plant has compound leaves - each leaf is made up of several small leaflets. "Sitchensis" means "of Sitka, Alaska."
newspaper readers couldn't see the flower photos very well, not
only because of the limitations of the newspaper printing
process, but also because I sent them to the paper as black and
white photos of a screen on which I projected the original color
(C) Art Carson 1986