Thursday, October 22, 2015

Top Ten Life Plants of 2015

It's hard to believe yet another year has come and gone. Spring and summer flew by in a blur your narrator can hardly comprehend, with autumn currently in its own hurry as well. Despite its rush, the 2015 field season was one to remember. There's never enough time to see and do everything on your list during a calendar year but then that's what makes each and every new experience you do have all the more memorable. For a botanist, or at least this botanist, one of the most rewarding tasks at the conclusion of the growing season is updating the life list. As time goes on and I become more and more acquainted with my local and regional flora, the frequencies of making new floral friends decreases. This makes each additional life species marked off the list feel just a bit more gratifying than the last. All the more reason to travel further outside one's botanical comfort zone, I say.

With our first frosts already in the past, I'd like to reminisce on my personal top ten favorite "lifers" from 2015's botanical forays. Just about all of them came outside Ohio's borders this year from places like Ontario, Wyoming or West Virginia. All ten plants were species I'd never had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh before; many only dreamily through a computer monitor or from the pages of my extensive botanical library. Some I specifically set out to see, others I came across by complete chance. Each one aroused emotions of excitement and disbelief, often erasing years of anxious desire. Many a tear of joy was shed while looking upon these featured wildflowers, which only served to reaffirm my passion and ambition for seeking out these often-times rare and magnificent wonders.

All that being said, let's begin the countdown of my favorite life plants from an unforgettable spring, summer and fall of botanizing throughout North America...

Rocky Mountain Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis thermalis). Wyoming, Early August

Starting off the countdown at number ten is the Rocky Mountain fringed gentian (Gentianopsis thermalis). Its electric blue petals graced many wet alpine meadows, fen-like stream sides and groundwater seeps during my time out in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming this past August. I've seen two of its closely related and equally stunning brethren (G. crinita and G. virgata, respectively) back in Ohio, but the surrounding scenery for these delicate beauties put them on another level of spectacular.

Northern Comandra (Geocaulon lividum). Bruce Pen., Ontario, June.
Northern Comandra (Geocaulon lividum). Bruce Pen., Ontario, June.

The criteria for how a plant species ends up making this most esteemed of lists goes much deeper than physical beauty. If that was the lone requirement, I hesitate to think lifer number nine would have even sniffed the final cut. What northern comandra (Geocaulon lividum) may lack in showiness, it more than makes up for in rarity and uniqueness. It's only known to occur sparingly in less than a dozen states; all bordering Canada, where it's much more common. It grows in cold coniferous forests on stabilized dunes and on rare occasions in bogs/fens in the Great Lakes region. It's much more conspicuous in fruit when it trades its small green axillary flowers for a striking orange-red drupe. When I came across this while up on Ontario's Bruce peninsula back in June, I was ecstatic to finally makes its acquaintance. I instantly recognized its unusual appearance and giddily wrote its name down on the day's plant list. Even better was the lush carpet of moss and reindeer lichen it emerged from, often times side-by-side with ram's head lady's slippers (Cypripedium arietinum).

Linear-leaved Gentian (Gentiana linearis). Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV, October.

The linear-leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis) comes in at number eight on the countdown of 2015's best life plants. It was just a couple weekends ago during an autumn backpacking trip to West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness that I finally got to see this procrastinator of a wildflower. The Sods plateau's boggy meadows and muskegs contained hundreds upon hundreds of these gentians but only a literal few still held corollas exhibiting their sky blue color. The pair photographed above were the best to be seen, glowing like sapphire beacons among a sea of browning vegetation and overcast skies.

Green Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes-ramosum). B.P., Ontario, June
Limestone Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum). B.P., Ontario, June

The decision making process in putting this list together can be as difficult as it is fun. And since I make the rules, I decided to call number seven a tie between two ferns that were growing literally only yards apart. The aforementioned Bruce peninsula in Ontario is a true botanical wonderland known the world around for its plethora of odd and disjunct ferns. The two celebrated spore-producers seen here are the green spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes-ramosum) and limestone oak fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum). Both are well outside their normal, albeit already limited distributions on the Bruce's narrow spit of limestone. Their high-quality alvar habitat was full of other fascinating plant life but more on that in a future post.

Great Lakes Iris (Iris lacustris). Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, June

Moving onto life plant number six has us staying on the Bruce for one of the most dainty wildflowers I've yet seen. The Great Lakes iris (Iris lacustris) was one I missed during my initial visit to the region four years earlier and managed to catch still in flower upon my return this past June. This tiny iris' size is lost without scale in the photo but each blossom is the size of a silver dollar! They are a globally rare, federally threatened species endemic to northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron's cobbled, sandy shorelines. These occurred just about everywhere the habitat was suitable along our section of Lake Huron, even blooming just outside the cabin's door.

Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium). Bruce Pen., Ontario, June

If it's not broke, don't fix it. I think that's a good line of advice and since the Bruce isn't broke, let's stick with it for life plant number five. As I mentioned earlier, the Bruce is widely known for its abundance of unusual fern taxa, with perhaps none as sought after as the hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium). While somewhat common across the pond in Europe, it only occurs as a local anomaly in a handful of places in the entirety of North America (AL, TN, NY, nMI and Ontario). I made sure to visit the cool, moist, rocky terrain beneath gorgeous Inglin Falls outside Owen Sound for this phenomenal fern and was not disappointed. It was yet another missed lifer during my first stint up on the Bruce I was proud to check off.

Southern Monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum). Scioto Brush Creek, OH October

Ohio is only represented once on this year's list but what a plant it is! Number four was one of my most unexpected discoveries, as well as one of the most breathtaking. Southern monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) is one of the state's most imperiled and endangered of wildflowers; growing only in a select few locations along Scioto Brush Creek, arguably Ohio's finest and most intact waterway. Southern monkshood typically blooms from late August into September, so I wasn't expecting much when I gave one of the known sites a hike through earlier this month. As luck would have it a single plant still bore a few blossoms in superb photogenic shape! A species of the southeastern US, this location marks one of only a handful of known sites north of the Ohio River. Long may it persist along this spectacular stretch of water.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum).
Lewis Co., Kentucky, May.

Back in May, I posted on here an account of arguably the most serendipitous orchid find of my life thus far in the southern small yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum). Myself and good friend and very knowledgeable botanist, Roger Beadles were poking around in northern Kentucky for the rare Kentucky lady's slipper (C. kentuckiense) when we stumbled across this small patch of 2015's life plant number three. It was a complete surprise and the last of eastern North America's lady's slipper orchids I needed to see. You can read all about that experience by following this link here. Later in the year, myself and some others came across an intriguing patch of pretty darn small lady's slipper plants on a preserve in Adams Co., Ohio. It was late August and the plants essentially vegetative only but they definitely sparked my interest and have earned a future visit this upcoming May. I have my hopes they could be the first documented occurrence of the southern small yellows on Ohio soil. Adding a new orchid to the state's flora is a dream bucket list item to be sure! Stay tuned...

Hooded Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana). Green River Lakes, WY, August

Speaking of orchids and bucket list items, it brings me a lot of pride and joy to have this next wildflower be number two on my countdown of 2015's best lifers. For those that know me personally and/or follow this blog with any regularity assuredly knows I'm obsessed with wild orchids. It's been a major life goal to see and photograph all 47 species indigenous to Ohio, and I've been sitting painfully close at 46 for over a year now. Not any more! The hooded ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) was the last to elude me and was a complete and utter surprise find while out in the mountains of western Wyoming this August. Dozens of them lined the banks of pristine rushing mountain streams and their adjacent meadows, glistening like a jewel in the bright sunlight. It's incredible to think I've now seen all 47 species, even if some haven't been within Ohio...yet. Just seeing them regardless of location has been special enough. More on these and this trip later!

Calypso (Calypso bulbosa). Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, June

If orchids won silver and bronze in this countdown they might as well make it a clean sweep with the gold as well. 2015's most exceptional and emotional life plant was none other than the elusive calypso or fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa). If I returned to the Bruce to see any one thing, it was this reclusive orchid of the northern woods. I could barely contain my excitement on the hike back to its known location on Flowerpot Island with butterflies in my stomach. Was it still blooming? Would I even find it? What if I was too late like last time? I needn't worry as a dozen or so calypsos were in pristine flower under the dense shade of its coniferous haunt. I spent a long time sitting in front of them in silence and stillness, admiring their miniscule appearance packed with delicate detail and color. It was a moment nearly a decade in the making from the first time I saw this species in one of my first wildflower books. The calypsos were still wet from the previous night's rain, or maybe it was from the tears that fell from finally laying eyes on these most astonishing orchids. Much, much more on this trip and moment in future posts!

I hope you've enjoyed this look back onto my favorite finds and life plants of 2015. I'll be curious to hear from you, my readers if any of these are on your life lists or plants you've had the honor of coming into contact with before. If anything I hope I've warmed your spirits even a wee bit as the reality of another wildflower season come and gone sinks in. If 2016 is anything like my 2015, it will be full of fantastic finds, exciting discoveries and more memories made soaking in the natural world's beauty and diversity. As I mentioned earlier, many of these plants/moments have their own blog posts forth coming, so I hope you'll look forward to that as winter sets in and we all begin anew the dream of spring.

- ALG -

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Find "The Buckeye Botanist" on Instagram!

Sunrise over Flat Top Mountain and Green River Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. August 2015.

Hello, everyone! It's been a while since I was last able to post on here but rest assured I'm still among the breathing and with more material and topics than ever to share. It's been an incredibly busy growing season for your narrator. Exciting trips to the Bruce peninsula, Ontario back in early June; Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming in August and the Dolly Sods Wilderness region in West Virginia just last weekend were unforgettable. Rest assured, I will be bringing those tales and more to you in the near future with three photos here to whet your appetite. With winter on the not-so-distant horizon, I expect to have more time at the keyboard.

Blackwater Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia. October 2015

All that being said, I'd like to take a quick moment to say I'm now on Instagram! (@The_Buckeye_Botanist). The move is long overdue but better late than never. The reason I'm taking the time to share this is it's an extremely easy and fun way to keep up with me in my day-to-day work and travels. I post nearly every day, many of those days with multiple photographs. It takes only a few minutes time out of my day to toss up a photo or two with a short paragraph to accompany it; rather than sit down and write up my notoriously long-winded posts on here. Just envision them as bite-sized blogs you can digest in a matter of seconds.

Limestone shorelines of Flowerpot Island, Fathom Five National Marine Park, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada. June 2015.

For those not already following me on Instagram, you can find me on there @The_Buckeye_Botanist. If you enjoy my rambling on here, as inconsistent as it can be, you're sure to savor a much more steady diet of the natural wonders of Ohio and beyond on Instagram! I hope to see you on there and feel free to like/comment/share any of my material. Don't be shy to interact with me on there personally either! So be sure to check out and follow @The_Buckeye_Botanist on Instagram today!