Monday, November 7, 2016

Top Ten Life Plants of 2016

It's hard to believe yet another growing season 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. I really don't know where the time goes and find it going by at an ever increasing rate. With the end of the growing season comes the annual updating of my botanical 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 perhaps just a bit more gratifying than the last. 2016 had its fair share of exciting and unbelievable discoveries as the forthcoming ten different plants are sure to show. This is a personal list of sorts and one of the more fun pieces of reminiscing I get to do each year. My activity on here has really waned the last two years as life gets more busy and I find less free time and energy to put into the blog but I definitely try to make time for this specific topic.

This past year I had the opportunity to do some traveling across the nation and made acquaintances with a striking number of new plants. Week long trips out to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Adirondacks of New York were the biggies, along with some weekend trips out of state. While I made plenty of new botanical friends here in Ohio, none managed to make the top ten list. There were just too many to choose from from out-of-state travel. 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. 

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...

Alpine Clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum)

Starting off the countdown at number ten is the aptly named alpine clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum). This attractive legume was one of a handful of native clovers seen during my partner Kara and I's vacation out to the Rocky Mountain National Park region of Colorado this past June and July. The alpine meadows at 12,000'+ were out of this world with dozens of different wildflowers in spectacular bloom but these strawberry and cream looking wonders were among my favorites. I'm already beyond behind sharing this trip and those before/after it in blog form but fingers crossed I get to them one of these days.

Creeping Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula)

Life plant number nine was easily one of the most exciting of all the plant sightings while immersed in the boggy peatlands of the Adirondacks, as well as one of the daintiest. The evergreen vining stems of the creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) is a plant long gone from Ohio's landscape but thankfully common in the Northeast and northern Great Lakes region. I'll admit I've come across this species before in my travels but only as an undistinguished vegetative plant, so seeing it adorned with its adorable snow white fruit was like truly seeing it for the first time. The white fruits are actually edible and have a wintergreen taste to them, essentially making it Nature's tic-tac like breath mints. The shaded mossy hummocks at the margins of a black spruce and tamarack bog were covered in a dense tangle of this plant and a perfect opportunity to soak in its charming demeanor.

From L to R: Michaux's Sedge (Carex michauxiana), Toothed Flatsedge (Cyperus dentatus), Bog Sedge (Carex. magellanica)

As a self-admitted and diagnosed sedge-head, I don't think I'd be living up to the title if I didn't share some of my favorite sedge lifers. So number eight on this countdown of 2016's best life plants are three species from my time in the plethora of wetlands in the Adirondacks. I came across nearly 50 species of Cyperaceae while up there and Michaux's sedge (Carex michauxiana), toothed flatsedge (Cyperus dentatus), and bog sedge (Carex magellanica) were my favorites. None of the three are known to occur in Ohio and all are more or less restricted to higher quality fens/shorelines/bogs in the northern latitudes of the continent. The bog sedge (on the far right in the photo) was an especially invigorating find as it's been on my 'most wanted sedges' list for many years and evaded me time and time again. I'll never forget exploring a small pocket of open bog meadow and finding its sphagnum hummocks covered with them, their chocolate brown ripened perigynia shattering at the slightest touch.

Wild Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra eximia)

Number seven on this countdown has the distinction of being the only plant on this list not from Colorado or New York. Instead, the gorgeous wild bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia) is from Kara and I's weekend backpacking trip this past spring to the stunning landscape of West Virginia's Dolly Sods region. Many may recognize this plant as something you see in the garden and/or landscape setting but it's actually a species indigenous to the Appalachians. It's rather uncommon throughout its limited range and most prevalent in the Virginias. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the important detail that it was my partner Kara who actually found this wildflower and not me! She called me over to see a "really neat pink flower we hadn't seen yet" while exploring Bear Rock's heath barrens, which made me ponder what it could be as this wasn't on my radar for this trip. It was nestled in a mossy crevice between boulders and an impressive spot by her. I think she's developing quite the sharp eye for plants!

Rock Spike-moss (Selaginella rupestris)
Rock Spike-moss (Selaginella rupestris)

The criteria for how a plant species makes it on my annual list of best life plants goes much deeper than just physical beauty. If that was the lone requirement I have my doubts that plant number six would have made the final cut. Rock spike-moss (Selaginella rupestris) is another one of the those oddities that I've had the botanical hots for for many years. Despite what its name may suggest, this plant is not really a moss but rather a fern ally related to the quillworts (Isoetes) and lycopods (Lycopodiopsida). It's an ancient and impressive little species with its sporangia (spore-bearing structure) tucked singly at the base of its fertile leaves, or sporophylls. One thing rock spike-moss does have in common with true bryophytes is being poikilohydric, meaning it come withstand severe bouts with drought/water loss and appear dead as a door nail, only to bounce right back to green, lush life after a rain. This primitive little spore producer is widespread throughout North America but unfortunately long extirpated from Ohio and a plant I've searched out for years in its historic haunts. The patch photographed here was found clinging to a rocky bluff overlooking the Hudson River while out in upstate New York.

View from Devil's Head Lookout in Colorado's Pike National Forest
Northern Spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionale)

Coming in at number five on this countdown is a plant I took more of a risk to see than I really care to admit. While out in Colorado, Kara and I did the well-known Devil's Head Lookout hike in Pike National Forest. It's a three mile jaunt gaining over 1,000 feet in elevation to a mountain top's fire tower with unbelievable views. While at the top of the narrow ridge, I noticed some tufts of green emerging from a crevice that I suspected could be the rare northern spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionale), a fern I desperately hoped to come across while out west. The fern looks very frustratingly similar to a simple tuft of grass and requires a close look to see its 'leaves' contain the characteristic small forks at their ends. My problem was the crevice was too far away to see clearly or photograph, so I slid out onto the ledge and scooted as close to the edge as I could with a several hundred foot fall to my assured death just a few feet and quick slip in front of me. I thoroughly scared Kara half to death and truthfully myself as well. I'd been pretty upset had a worthless clump of grass tricked me into taking such a risk. My palms are a bit sweaty just thinking back on my stupidity BUT it was indeed the northern fern and worth the risk to me! It was the only time I ever saw any and walked away with my life and a good story. I've already accepted that botany could very well end up being the end of me...

Water Marigold (Bidens beckii)
Water Marigold (Bidens beckii)

Shifting back to the the Adirondacks of New York finds us at life plant number four on our countdown. My early August visit to New York produced many life plants but few meant more than finally coming face to face with the golden blossoms of water marigold (Bidens beckii). Like some of the other plants listed above, this unique wildflower has been extirpated from Ohio's borders for over a century and was a delightful sight in the calm shallows of a bay in the Hudson River during a paddle with friends. It's a hard plant to miss when flowering with its single terminal flower suddenly emerging from the water's surface. The simple, stalkless emergent leaves are a stark contrast to the water marigold's finely filiform, fan-like submerged leaves that run the length of the underwater stem, sometimes nearly ten feet to the substrate. Looking at the whole thing makes it seem like two completely different plants merged together in an experiment gone awry. It also reminds me of an iceberg with so little of the plant visible and the bulk of it unseen below. Water marigold was once widespread and common in the Northeast and Great Lakes region but is becoming increasingly more rare throughout its range due to the negative impacts on its aquatic habitats.

Gunnison's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus gunnisonii)
Gunnison's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus gunnsonii)

Before heading out to Colorado this past summer, I spent many weeks leading up to our trip daydreaming and researching what members of its diverse flora I wanted to see. I came up with far more than I ever reasonably imagined I'd find but the mariposa lilies (Calochortus) were an instant must-meet. As luck would have it I'm able to happily list life plant number three on this countdown as the Gunnison's mariposa lily (C. gunnsonii). During the long, remote drive to the Devil's Head Lookout trail head, I spotted a tall flash of white in my peripheral vision that caused me to slam on the brakes and put the Subaru into reverse. Good thing I did as that curiosity turned out to be the only mariposa lily I'd see the entire trip. It was in perfect condition and speckled with water droplets from the ever-present rainstorms we dodged most of the week. I've marveled at this genus' beauty for years and to finally see one's floral perfection in person was pure botanical bliss!

Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)
Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)

Those that know me personally or have followed this blog from the beginning know that trees were my first botanical love and remain a passionate favorite to this day. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that number two would end up being one of, if not the coolest tree species this tree hugger has yet seen in the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata). Their ancient, gnarled form made each individual tree a work of art and unlike anything I'd seen before. Some trees from this grove in the Mount Goliath Natural Area at about 11,500' have been dated to over 1,600 years old and definitely looked the part! It's hard to fathom thriving, let alone surviving for over a millennium at the tree line in the cold, harsh and windswept climate of the subalpine that few other trees can tolerate. My time among these primal trees was an emotional experience and I came away with a newfound respect and fascination for my beloved woody plants. Even Kara completely understood and grasped the impressive nature and importance of these trees and loved every second among them as well. I'll make a genuine tree hugger of her yet! It's worth mentioning that another species of bristlecone pine (P. longaeva) found further to the west in California, Nevada, and Utah is known as the oldest living individual organism on Earth with some specimens confirmed to be over 5,000 years old! Incredible...

Clustered Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium fasciculatum)

If you've been following along on this countdown and been wondering, or perhaps even worried about when the first orchid would make its appearance fear no more! It took awhile but I naturally saved the best for last and present to you the number one life plant from 2016. The clustered lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium fasciculatum) was easily my most wanted botanical item during Kara and I's week long trek out to Colorado. I didn't have much in the way of solid leads or ideas on where to look for this elusive orchid other than its affinity for cool, shaded fir/spruce forests around 9,000-11,000' in elevation. I figured my chances were slim-to-none and wasn't holding my breath on coming across any, especially in prime blooming condition. Little did I know how lucky I would get!

Clustered Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium fasciculatum)
Clustered Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium fasciculatum)

Everyone know's my obsession and addiction with wild orchids and after seeing so much of the east's wonderful diversity, I was really excited at my chance to gain a few new life species while out west at a favorable time of the year. I ended up seeing a half dozen or so species of orchid but none had the same inebriating effect as the clustered lady's slippers. Kara and I were on a long hike in the depths of Rocky Mountain National Park when I caught a glimpse of them blooming in the sparsely vegetated spruce needle duff along the trail and could barely contain my shock or keep my heart in my chest. I ended up finding a lot of them spread throughout the area in a range of colors, from deep maroon to a more yellowish orange-green. The flowers were smaller than I'd imagined and distinctly clustered as the name would suggest. One might argue they aren't all that aesthetically pleasing, especially compared to other members of its genus but they were ineffably gorgeous to me. My time with them was too short and the drizzly conditions didn't make photographing them easy but in the end it didn't really matter to a beggar like me. Just reminiscing on such an incredible experience has me on cloud nine all over again. I can't wait to get back out to the mountain west and hunt down the rest of the continent's lady's slipper orchids.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back on my favorite finds and life plants of 2016. 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 2017 is anything like my 2016, it will be full of fantastic finds, exciting discoveries and more memories made soaking in the natural world's beauty and diversity. I certainly hope to find some time this winter to look back on my trips out to Colorado and New York in greater detail. I'd certainly like to and know the few dedicated readers still hanging around for new posts would too.

- ALG -