The rural life: Vinegar Hollow in June

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge.

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge in the cool of early morning.

I arrive back in Vinegar Hollow to experience  a week of June in Highland County, Virginia, at the farm that my parents bought in 1948. Things seem tranquil on the first morning as the cows move slowly across the hills chomping at the new grass, but soon enough a news story develops.

Four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

Early morning: four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

When Mike came to feed the barn cats the next morning, he noticed ear tags that didn’t match those of his herd. Two cows and two calves, not necessarily belonging to each other, which is problematic for all concerned, had strayed through an open gate from a neighboring property the day before, setting off quite a kerfuffle in the home herd. There was a tremendous bellowing by the trough all day as the cattle tried to figure out who belonged where. In the evening the owners rounded up the strays  but couldn’t get them back over the Peach Tree Hill before dark so they spent the night cooped up, like chickens you might say, which did not agree with them. They had plenty of water in the trough, but the grasses on the other side of the fence smelled so sweet. Their longing for freedom intensified over night and they stared at me intently as I strolled with my morning coffee, hoping I was the one who would free them. I told them Corey and Miranda would come soon.

I remembered the time my sister and I slept overnight outside in our sandbox, which had been converted into a tent. We woke up in the early morning when the large head of a large deer poked through the blanket over the sandbox, sniffing, nuzzling, and terrifying us. It turned out be to a pet deer that had escaped its owner. This is what I mean by news stories on a farm.

Nearby I watch the daily progress of the wild cucumber creeping out of the gone-wild calf nursery. This enclosure, my mother’s old vegetable garden, has metal hoops that are covered in winter with canvas to protect newborn calves that have been booted out of the barn to make way for new arrivals–in the too-cold of their birthing season.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

It's over the wall!

It’s over the wall!

Still drinking my coffee, I watch the blue-black butterfly that comes jogging around the house every morning and afternoon visiting the same patch of scat, which has been rained on so often that it must seem fresh.  This is probably the black swallowtail mimic that has no tails, the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

This individual has come to seem like my personal friend. I have chased around after it and found that its behavior fits that described for this species–it enjoys scat, gravel roads, and roadsides.

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The butterfly has made its way to our gravel driveway. Photographing butterflies is frustrating for the amateur. This is not sharp, but finally I see the “red” spots at the extremities of the upper wings. I didn’t notice them at all while observing the constantly moving “flutterby.”

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road by the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow.

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road near the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow. It was killed, mostly likely, by my car or Mike’s as very few others travel this road. Soon I started noticing dead Red-spotted Purples on Route 220 north and south to Monterey. Their penchant for frequenting gravel and roads is not healthy.

The Red-spotted Purple has found fame in the hands of writer May Swenson, author of the poem “Unconscious Came a Beauty” written  in the shape of the butterfly that alighted on her wrist while she was writing one day. It is a delicate poem full of stillness until the last line, “And then I moved.” She was fortunate to have this experience, and we are fortunate to have her poem. The hollow seems to be full of Red-spotted Purples this year, and there is much to learn about them. There are good observers out there, like Todd Stout, who offers a youtube video on identifying the hibernacula of this species. A hibernaculum is the overwintering curled-leaf-like home of the caterpillar, beautifully camouflaged to avoid notice. It is hard for me to imagine that I can ever learn to spot a hibernaculum, but I do know black cherry trees, a preferred host, so that’s a start.

The viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

The viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

I am happy to find viper’s bugloss, my mother’s favorite wildflower, abundant along the cliff road, nestled against the limestone outcroppings, as impressionistic a combination of pink and blue as one can imagine. The pollen is blue, while the stamens are red. Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson in A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America describe it as “bristly.” Yes, it’s the right word. The flowers may look a little fluffy, due to their exserted stamens, but the plant rebuffs touching. It is definitely a porcupine in flowery dress.  “Bugloss” derives from two Greek words meaning head of a cow and tongue, the import of that being that the leaves are as coarse as a cow’s tongue.

Close-up of viper's bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted stamens.

Close-up of viper’s bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted pink stamens with slate-blue pollen .

Close-up

Close-up showing bristly nature of the plant.

My mother had a passionate attachment to viper’s bugloss, tucking little sprays of it into vases in her kitchen whenever she could. Maybe it was the blueness that attracted her, because she loved the indigo bunting and the bluebird as well, but I suspect she also sympathized with its bristlyness.

It rains every day, which brings the red eft out of hiding. Once years ago as a child I found one that had been stepped on by me or one of my family members near the garden gate as we arrived for the summer, one of its feet flattened, looking so childlike that I felt like crying. I watched this one undulate noiselessly to safety.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

June is hay-making season, and the air in Vinegar Hollow is sweet with the scent of flowering grasses, native and nonnative.  I remember helping to make hay stacks in the Big Meadow in the old days when a pitchfork was the preferred tool. Then rectangular bales came along, which were easy to lift, though prickly, but with the advent of  the huge round bales of today the farmer needs sophisticated machinery to make and maneuver them into storage. Now I just walk among the grasses on the hills, admiring the delicacy of the myriad grass “florets,” trying to remember what I learned in Agrostology, the study of grasses, as a graduate student in botany at the University of Texas at Austin. I loved the course, but we worked almost entirely with herbarium specimens which took some of the romance out of the enterprise. A floret is a little floral package, which includes a very small flower lacking petals and sepals, but surrounded by two protective scales, the lemma and the palea. Much in the study of agrostology depends on the lemma and the palea. And the awn. The specialized vocabulary needed to described the intricacy of grasses is remarkable.

While each floret may seem too modest to admire, many florets grouped together make stunning inflorescences. Grasses in flower argue for a special kind of beauty. Their feathery stigmas and dangling anthers float and shiver in the breezes, and entire hillsides seem to shift when wind moves through the knee-high grasses.

This week I fell in love, again, with a grass I know by sight but whose name I had never learned.  It’s downy, pinkish-purplish above and bluish-greenish lower down. Let’s call it the Mystery Grass.

My mystery grass, which turned out to be Nuttall's reed grass (Calamagrostis ....).

Mystery Grass. Mike said that he’s always called it feather grass and that it’s one our native grasses.

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, in her recent “On Nature” column for the New York Times, titled “Identification, Please,” writes that

There’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identifications, and every time you learn to recognize a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless gray and green.

She’s right.

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A “blur of nameless” grasses flowering in June in Vinegar Hollow.

I decided to try to name  the sweet-smelling, soft feather grass. I have spent almost a lifetime identifying plants in Vinegar Hollow using Virginia McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide, but they don’t include grasses in their book, though grasses are wildflowers. My father taught me the easy forage grasses, like timothy and orchard grass, so distinctive that they can’t be mistaken for anything else, but I don’t remember him naming the mystery grass.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, spreading out their pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, allowing anthers to dangle, offering pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescence.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescences and a few anthers just peaking out of florets.

Lacking a field guide, I set off into the vast world of the Internet, which after three or hours yielded an answer through a combination of sources: Nuttall’s Reedgrass or Calamagrostis coarctata (synonym Calamagrostis cinnoides). Reader: if my identification is incorrect, please let me know. If I’m right, I’d like to know that also. I never found the perfect source with a clear photograph.

Grasses are hard to get to know, especially as they change through the growing season, similar to birds whose juvenile feathers have different colors and patterns than the adult ones. My “feather grass” will look different at the  end of the season, when the seed has ripened. The soft purple will have turned to a whispery tan, and the shape of the inflorescence will change as well. During my search, as I tried to differentiate the “feather grass” from the other grasses common in Virginia, I collected other grasses for comparison. Falling back upon my training in agrostology, I made a multi-species herbarium sheet to reveal the unique morphologies of the inflorescences that in the field “blur” together so beautifully.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

I have  other story lines here in the hollow to move forward as well. Two eminent trees, a sugar maple and a black oak, have dominated the farmyard at the end of the hollow for three generations or more. The black oak is all but dead. My father hired someone to put a lightning rod on the oak years ago, but age has overtaken it and limbs are falling steadily. Only a few slender branches have any leaves, and they are small. The granary nearby, full of valuable farm machinery, is at risk. Roy, who has lived in the hollow 91 years, says that it was in its prime when he was young. It is the kind of tree that people stand under and say, if only this tree could talk, the stories it could tell. In high school I wrote a poem for our literary magazine about the trees, which I always thought of as parental, the sugar maple like my mother and the black oak like my father. I had hoped to predecease them, but it has fallen upon me to take action. I met with the tree service this week to make the appointment for removing the oak. As I confronted my depressing role as executioner, I thought of W. S. Merwin’s remarkable piece of writing called “Unchopping a Tree.” No one should take down a tree with a light conscience.

There is good news, however. My husband and I have been protecting two seedlings of this oak in the yard under the electric pole. They must be transplanted this fall before they are too big to move and before the electric company decides to eliminate them. We are going to transplant both and hope that one at least lives for the next 300 years.

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Granary and black oak.

Black oak seedling.

Black oak seedling.

The last news story is that the light on the pole lamp went out. Set on top of a tall telephone-type pole, it casts a broad illumination. My mother put it up years ago. She lived at the farm alone for many years and it must have given her a welcome sense of company, and, it would have lighted her chores at night. I never liked it because in the evening it attracted luna moths that would then cling to the pole, quiescent, during the day even as birds pecked them to shreds, and it casts too much light for sleepers who like a darkened room. I wasn’t prepared for the utter darkness that night when the pole light didn’t go on. I had come to the hollow with the dog and the cat, but without the husband, children, or grandchildren.  The stars and the moon can be very bright at the end of the hollow, but there are no lights from any other sources. My nearest neighbor, Roy, is over several folds of the creased hills that make up Vinegar Hollow. On this still, overcast night, there was complete darkness without and within, when I had turned off the house lights. Paul Bogard, in his book The End of Night:  Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, talks about how light pollution affects our relationship with the natural world. Lying in bed, surrounded by complete and utter darkness, I felt a little uneasy, but settled into it, perhaps like a Red-spotted Purple caterpillar in a hibernaculum. I let the darkness take on a natural presence around me.

Then I started thinking about the new stories of this week in June. The cows and calves, the red eft, Nuttall’s Reedgrass, the viper’s bugloss, the black oak, the tendrils exploring  the hereafter, and so on. I also remembered one of my favorite reflections about the rural life, made by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his Farewell column for the New York Times’ editorial page:

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive — no question about it.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

Klinkenborg kept faith with his column on rural life for 16 years. “Nearly always,” he says, there are words that suit. I pause over the “nearly always.”  The work of finding suitable words keeps pulling me forward.

Snow as Metaphor: Revealing and Concealing

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

It was 1° in Ithaca, NY, this morning. It seemed cold but then I checked on my daughter’s temperature, she has recently moved to Saranac Lake, NY, and it was negative 15°  there. So I felt warmer but overindulged and longed to give some of this excess warmth to my daughter.

There was yet a new dusting of snow. Yesterday morning felt more like being in a snow globe turned upside down by an enthusiastic child, while today a cobweb mohair shawl covered surfaces and crevices. All this month I have been thinking of the cold and the snow, wanting to appreciate winter, understand how it helps us see or not see what is around us. (And if we feel a longing for what we cannot see, this perception should help us remember to love that which is missing when it is right in front of us.)

The garden bench is occupied.

The garden bench is occupied.

This reminded me of a favorite text that I used with my academic writing students at Ithaca College, Figures of Speech for College Writers, an anthology by Dona J. Hickey. The readings were all about metaphor, the central thesis being that metaphors are imperfect and paradoxical, concealing and revealing in one tiny phrase. The students and I found a lot to discuss in the essays chosen by Hickey.

The naturalist’s calling is to learn from first-hand experience. This is difficult at 1º,  but I have a dog who lives for just that, so off we go several times a day, around the block, if the roads are too bad to get to the country.

I see the tracks of a rabbit out early. I know her in summer, and now I see her hunched in the cold, feet making butterfly shapes.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

 

I see the brown-and-white skeletons of summer’s weeds against the winterwhite of early morning. The snow reveals their delicate structure clearly now. In summer they probably appeared nondescript, without definition, to most passers by.

 

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

I see the five needles, bundled into a fascicle, of the white pine displayed as if for a textbook. I would not have noticed that fallen fascicle if not for the whiteness of the ground.

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

I see top hats on the golden-green furry buds of the star magnolia.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

I see the graceful architectural sway of the main branches of the Weeping Alaska Cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis pendula) that my husband planted to replace the magnificent multi-stemmed white oak cracked by lightning a few years ago. I was too busy then to document its life and death, but now every time I look at the cypress, I remember to weep for the white oak.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress, with star magnolia to the far left.

I see a part of a tail in the driveway. There’s a tale here I am sure of something that happened in the night…..

A tail is lost....

A tail is lost….?

The naturalist does turn to literature to find answers to questions and deepen perceptions. This fall I stumbled on a wonderful book by Peter J. Marchand called Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology (4th edition), published by the University Press of New England. It is a somewhat academic text, but so clearly and elegantly written that I recommend it as pleasurable reading for anyone on a cold winter’s evening.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

Last winter I wrote in one of my blogs about how trees adapt to winter, but now I am interested in Marchand’s chapter titled “Humans in Cold Places.” The take-home message is that humans do not have many adaptations for the cold, but they can increase their tolerance, as shown in studies that he describes of aboriginal Australians, the Kaweskar and Inuit peoples, Norwegian and Gaspe fisherman, Quebec City mailmen, Antarctic workers, Finnish outdoorsman, and Tibetan and Indian yogis. This latter group shows some of the greatest ability to exhibit cold hardiness. He writes:

A group of Tibetan Buddhists who live in unheated, uninsulated stone huts in the Himalayan foothills and who practice an advanced form of meditation known as g Tum-mo yoga, show an extraordinary ability to elevate skin temperature in their extremities by as much as 8° within an hour of assuming their meditative posture.

He cites an interesting study showing that yoga-trained army recruits demonstrated greater cold hardiness than physically trained recruits.

Marchand concludes the chapter:

By our cultural and technological ingenuity, we have inhabited the coldest places on earth. Biologically we remain essentially tropical beings.

Tropical? I consider myself more of a north-temperate being as truly tropical climates make me wan and lifeless. Maybe the 64 winters that I have lived through have caused some basic physiological adaptation, but it would be difficult for a researcher to gather data from my experience.

And there are those people who seem to be fatally attracted to cold temperatures. Rebecca Solnit’s new book The Faraway Nearby describes haunting stories of explorers and travelers in the Far North. For example, Peter Freuchen, a young Dutch/Jewish explorer, volunteered to stay in a tiny hut in northeastern Greenland for the winter of 1905/1906 to take meteorological data. He was only 20. His companions left, his dogs were eaten by wolves, and the hut’s interior space became smaller and smaller from the condensation of his breath into ice. Solnit writes:

Before winter and his task ended and relief came, he was living inside an ice cave made of his own breath that hardly left him room to stretch out to sleep. Peter Freuchen, six foot seven, lived inside the cave of his own breath.

Solnit’s book carries many themes, but particularly ruminates about stories that are told and retold and mistold. Tightly woven, the book’s stories will entrance and perhaps frighten the reader on yet another cold winter’s night.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit's new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

But back to snow as metaphor, for example: snow is a shawl or blanket. Snow cover insulates life in winter, concealing the seeds and roots that will grow in spring. They are there in frozen ground under snow, waiting. Some life forms wait for what seems like forever.

Last year I learned to play, courtesy of my piano teacher, little Fran, who is 91, the very old tune, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” translated as “Lo, How A Rose.” There is a line describing how the rose

“it came, a flow’r-et bright, ___ Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night”

(15th-century wording; see Carols for Christmas, arranged and compiled by David Willcocks).

Half spent is our winter here. I will continue to observe snow’s concealments and revelations and sympathize with the cold even as I look forward to my primroses showing up bright in the squishy earthmelt of early April.

Primrose.

Primrose.

 

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Where have all the flowers gone–and their Monarchs?

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Monarch visiting thistle in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

It’s a lonely fall for those of us who love being observers of the annual migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) back to Mexico, a 3,000-mile journey that is breathtaking for its scope and its beauty. If we could connect all the dots of all the trajectories and innumerable stops for nectar to fuel the journey, we would see a pattern, a living tapestry, so instructive of the importance of thinking ecologically.

I have recently been migrating myself, from Ithaca, New York to Harrisville, New Hampshire, back to Ithaca, and now south to western Virginia. Having heard that a 90% decline in migratory numbers was predicted for this fall, I have been looking for monarchs in old and new haunts. In Harrisville, I saw one monarch, in Ithaca three, and one in Vinegar Hollow. In past years,  significant numbers have accompanied me on my daily dog-walking rambles. Being with them, admiring their determined, zig-zaggy flitting, from blossom to blossom, I have felt part of the hero’s journey, the voyage home, a mythology rooted in biology.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch visiting Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Underside wings of monarch still visiting Verbena bonariensis. It’s easier to write about monarchs than to photograph them, which is a dizzying experience.

The media have documented the decline in monarch numbers more authoritatively. The figure given since January 2014 is a 90% decline. For graphs, see the website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and an article in the Washington Post by Brad Plummer. Plummer reports a conversation with Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, who outlines three causes for the decline:  deforestation in Mexico, severe weather issues (e.g., the 2013 drought in Texas), and herbicide-based agriculture. I remember a lecture given by Brower at Cornell a few years ago, in which he noted that efforts to create a monarch reserve in Mexico had in fact led to more poaching by illegal loggers than before its creation. All monarchs have to fly through Texas, so not much can be done to prevent a decline due to drought. It is important to know, however, that monarchs flying south need to feed heavily on nectar, some of which they store for use during the winter “hibernation.”  You might say that blossoms are their gas stations. The issue of herbicide-ready agriculture is big and contentious.

Citing the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto developed Round-up ready soybean and corn seed in the 1990s, the widespread of this seed, which enables large-scale herbicide spraying, in the Midwest has wrecked havoc with the life-supporting patchwork of milkweed species hanging out here and there in fields and along roadsides. It takes four generations of monarchs to hatch and breed and feed on milkweed foliage, on their way across the United States to Canada. Milkweed species are said to show a 67% decline in numbers.

Coniff notes that farmers are not the problem and believes that Monsanto has the money to establish milkweed-friendly zones around agricultural fields. Apparently Monsanto is presently studying whether the fear of monarch extinction is legitimate, and whether it wishes to be part of conservation efforts.

We can all plant milkweeds. There are 110-120 species, of which 32 are particularly helpful for monarchs. Coniff offers a link to supplier of milkweed seeds and plants. Milkweeds in themselves are a wonderful group of plants with a  unique floral structure (see this additional Xerces posting) (and this one showing the common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]), complete with horns, hoods, and corpuscula. Many of us in the northeast know the common milkweed, its fleshy, drooping, dusty-rose flowers, hypnotically scented, but there are many other milkweed species

 

Milkweed flowers with visitor.

Milkweed flowers with visitors, seen summer 2014 (Enfield, near Ithaca, NY)

with the same fascinating flowers perfected in different sizes and shapes (scroll down to the bottom of this link).

MonarchWatch.org, led by Chip Taylor, is an excellent organization/website offering information on the biology of monarchs and milkweeds and on conservation efforts. Many people are now hosting monarch “waystations” under the guidance of MonarchWatch.

Monarchs have been called “iconic” and their flight “epic,” and rightfully so. Every school child in North America has known their story. Many have watched, as I have, the chrysalis become butterfly in just seconds, miraculously, as the molecules reorganize themselves from immobile jewel case into polka-dotted flight machine. And there is more to learn. Just last week, National Geographic posted an article on new discoveries about the genetics behind the white monarch and the efficiency of  flight muscles in the migratory monarch. They continue to inspire our creativity, as in this book shown below about a biologist coming home to Lake Erie to study monarch migration, or this new Harrisville Watershed yarn called “Monarch” (click on it, sitting to the left of “Barn Red,” for a close-up).

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

There are many good people working to ensure a future for monarchs, so that they do not become part of a mythic past. And there are many good weeds and wildflowers ready to be part of the ongoing story.

P. S.  For an article on the migration of Fall 2014, see this article titled “For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back” by Liza Gross.

 

Finding the Lonesome Pine

 

 

Vinegar Hollow. Stark's Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Vinegar Hollow. Stark’s Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Trekking abandoned logging roads by ATV with a chainsaw in the back of the vehicle is a new experience for me, but happily so. As a young girl I wanted to be a plant explorer in the great tradition of “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrer, who brought back garden treasures from the remotest parts of lands still foreign to westerners at the time. Farrer roamed craggy mountains and misty valleys in Burma, China, and Tibet in life-threatening conditions armed with whiskey and a set of Jane Austen. So here I am, exploring remote mountain tops and glens of the Allegheny Mountains, fulfilling youthful dreams. I am home and do not need to carry whiskey and Austen.

 

Back Creek Mountain.

Back Creek Mountain  meets the sky above Vinegar Hollow.

 

The folds of Back Creek Mountain, which forms one of the north-south borders of Vinegar Hollow, looks impenetrable and pristine from Stark’s Ridge, the highest point directly opposite on the other side of the hollow. The wooded undulations of the mountain range reveal little of the history of human use of the landscape. In fact, it has been logged and relogged for the last several hundred years. Rough trails criss-cross the forest floor in a maze of switchbacks and curlicues. The forest giants are long gone, but secret gardens remain and a hoary pine native to the Appalachian Mountains.

Younger son on ATV.

Younger son on older son’s ATV.

 

ATVs are bumpy, noisy, and smelly, but they aid enormously in botanizing and can be turned off while one explores on foot. My husband and I had driven up this part of the logging trail maybe half a dozen times, but never stopped to get out at this particular turn in the road. Maybe it was the morning light shining on an expanse of silvery pale green lichens that caught our eyes, but soon enough we were trying to hop about on delicate feet, in thrall to the wonders underfoot in what I am calling the pine cone garden.

Lichens and pine cone.

Lichened branches and pine cones.

 

Pine cone and lichens.

Pine cone and lichens.

Whether nesting in lichens or pine needles, each cone seemed to be at home. Like sunflowers, pine cones have a deeply satisfying architectural form, the scales overlapping in an arrangement reflecting a sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. These cones are striking for their silvery gray brown shading and the curving, decorative prickles at the end of each scale.

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

 

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

The cones are stalkless, seemingly having sprouted out of stout branches.

Fallen branch with cones.

Fallen branch with cones.

But where was the parent tree? I looked up finally.

Parent tree.

Parent tree.

The morning light shone on its lichened, outstretched arms. One branch lay blasted on the ground.

Branch bent to the ground.

Branch of parent tree bent to the ground.

Lichens covered the bark exuberantly.

Lacy lichen.

“Lacy lichen” on parent tree.

 

Lichen on parent tree.

“Hoary lichen” on parent tree.

Further walking on this rocky slope by the side of the logging road revealed some dainty lichens displaying a  lovely pastel, slightly orange-pink coloration, something that forest fairies might have planned.

Fairy lichen.

Pink earth lichen.

 

Dainty lichen.

The extremely photogenic pink earth lichen again.

I know I wrote in my last blog about the importance of identifying small life forms, but I decided not to pursue lichen identification here (it would be like Alice falling into a wonderland of splendid but strange forms and vocabulary) because my primary goal now is to honor the pine and its cones. “Hoary lichen” and “lacy lichen” are just my own bland names, not proper common names. It turns out (courtesy of my husband’s research) that the lichen with the pink knobs is easy to identify via Google images. It is known by a lovely common name–the pink earth lichen. Its scientific name, Dibaeis baeomyces, is not at all user friendly. Project Noah offers a photo with a description offering the information  that the knobs are filled with “cottony fibers.”

My husband and I got busy taking measurements and assessing characteristics that would identify the pine.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

 

A 2-3 needle pine!

A 2 (-3) needle pine! Apparently the number of needles per bundle is not totally constant.

 

One thing that makes pines fairly easy to identify is that there are not many different species of them in the world. Further, pine needles are arranged in little bundles bound in a common sheath, and the number of needles in the bundle (fascicle) is distinctive for each species. The familiar white pine, distinctive for its long, graceful needles, has five needles per bundle, for example.  So, it’s pretty easy to count the number of needles per bundle on a pine sample–we found two needles per bundle in this pine–and look up a list of 2-needle pines in North America. The list is not that long. Also, the pine cones of our pine were unusually prickly, which proved an excellent identifying characteristic. First we settled on Pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine, because it has prickle-tipped cones and it’s native, but its growth habit (overall shape) wasn’t right. We moved on through the list of 2-needle pines.

Voila Pinus pungens, commonly known as the prickly pine, table mountain pine, and hickory pine! Prickly pine  is certainly a suitable common name because of the cone, and table mountain because of the high elevation at which it likes to grow, but hickory pine? A hickory tree is in a completely different family and order and is known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. I love it when the common names of life forms become interesting metaphors, connecting the unlike through some hint of likeness, so I puzzle over its derivation.  Hickory trees are often gaunt and gangly in shape, which is perhaps the likeness that inspired the common name of hickory pine because Pinus pungens is  described as having a “rounded, irregular shape.” Another possibility is that the common name recognizes the fact that Pinus pungens likes to grow with hickories. However, there were no hickories on this rocky hillside.

It is a lonesome pine. Unlike most species of pines, this pine is known for growing as scattered individuals, rather than in large groves.  Lonesome but not unsung. John Fox Jr. made this species famous in his book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a top-ten bestseller of 1908-1909, and a book still dramatized in yearly pageants in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where John Fox died in 1919. Fox’s book beautifully describes the Appalachian mountain culture and landscape, and the confusion and disruption that occur when modern civilization arrives, here in the form of the train and coal mining. Fox describes the lonesome pine repeatedly so that it becomes a character in its own right, representing the isolated individual struggling to retain identity. The main human protagonist is a young man from “civilization” who arrives to bring change to the area but is nevertheless sensitive to the value of what he finds there. Fox writes from the point of view of this character:

He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightaway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn.

–John Fox, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine   

He suggests a parallel and a connection between the plight of the lonesome pine and the human being. Defiance in the face of unaccountable whirlwinds, like World War II. My parents loved this book for its description of the mountains they settled in post my father’s service in the war. With all their hearts they aspired to be mountain folk, fierce individuals never at peace when far from lichen-covered trees and forested vistas. Their grandson has now purchased some of this mountain land to protect–from the “green dark ravines far below” to the rocky slopes of the ridge tops where the lonesome pine survives, casting its prickly cones into a garden of fantastical lichen, both tender and tough.

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Trees rising from one of the deep, green glens of Back Creek Mountain.

  

 

Plants and People: Celebrating the Brooklyn Botanic Children’s Garden

Display near the entrance to the Children's Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Display near the entrance to the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) celebrated the 100th Anniversary of its renowned Children’s Garden. As Frances Miner, who worked in the Children’s Garden for 43 years said, “There are plants and there are people, and there are many ways they can be brought together.”

 

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

 

The history of the Children’s Garden is beautifully described on BBG’s website. Anyone interested in gardening with children will find this history interesting. Anyone interested in reading about strong women will find the profiles of Ellen Eddy Shaw and Frances Miner, who both shaped the garden for many years, inspiring.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left),   Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children's Garden.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left), Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children’s Garden.

I came to BBG as a “botanical instructor” just as Frances Miner was retiring. The motto she stressed was “learn by doing.” This statement has rung true to me many times over the years. Too often we feel “stupid” because we can’t replicate a procedure or activity after hearing an explanation. But we are not “stupid,” we just have not learned through the body. The Director of BBG at the time, Elizabeth Scholtz (shown above) still goes to work at the garden, as Director Emeritus, Monday through Friday. Her devotion, charm, and horticultural advocacy are legendary. Ruth Harzula (also shown above), who was the first woman to graduate from Delaware Valley College with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture,  was in my cohort of young “botanical instructors” who worked at the garden in the 1970s. She brought many talents to our group, among them working with special needs children in the vegetable garden. I also remember the day she unleashed a natural history drama at lunch. Bringing forth her insect collection for show and tell, she screamed upon opening it.  There were lots of little “bodies” moving around.  A praying mantis egg case had hatched and a swarm of tiny praying mantises, each the length of a finger nail at most, was busy devouring her carefully pinned insects. It was a terrifying scene of carnage, wings and legs strewn about half eaten.  At least this is how I remember it. Ruth, please let me know if I have misrepresented the event.

 

Tools in the Children's Garden house.

Tools in the Children’s Garden house.

In my era we taught a sequence of four classes for New York City public school children in which they learned how to make cuttings, how to pot up their rooted cutting,  and had tours of the conservatory and the outdoor plant collections. I remember the students as being very interested and well behaved. They loved the hands-on work in the greenhouse. We taught adult classes as well. While most classes had a practical application, like dyeing fibers with plant materials, I taught a “romantic” one, “Trailing the Wild Arbutus with Gun and Camera,” about the world’s great plant explorers and the plants they introduced to our gardens. These plant-loving explorers underwent extraordinary deprivations and dangerous situations to make these flowery “introductions.”

Staff in the Children's Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up.

Staff in the Children’s Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up at the celebration. Lemon balm is tough and lovely. The cutting I potted up survived several subway rides and a long bus ride to arrive safely in Ithaca, NY.

 

I was also in charge of the Shakespeare Garden, but at that time there was insufficient funding for buying special varieties or even spending many hours in the garden. Luckily it looked perfectly beautiful, to me, with too many foxgloves.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

 

Mullein plant in the Shakespeare Garden.

Flowering stalk of the Arctic Summer Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’) in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

There were people as interesting as the plants. One was George Kalmbacher, a retired postal worker, who became an expert in bromeliads (pineapples and their relatives), traveling all over the world to visit and document rare species. Like our very own phantom of the opera, he could be found at all hours of the day and night scurrying between the herbarium and the conservatory with a huge camera and a plant in his hand that he was photographing, probably for the book What Flower is That? It had over 1000 photographs of garden flowers. His knowledge was encyclopedic–because he certainly learned by doing. One winter he got quite excited because the night-blooming cereus (a kind of cactus) was getting ready to flower and he  urged us to be in the conservatory between 10 pm and 11 pm for the grand opening. I fretted about staying so late in the city, but he said that this would be my only chance to watch the huge buds open, petal by petal, and he was right. Some call it the Queen of the Night, and have paid tribute with musical accompaniment. By morning the Queen has wilted, her gown in disarray, the petals hanging limp.

 

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

And then there was Frank Okamura who curated an outstanding collection of bonsai. He was a little intimidating, not loquacious like George, stern in protecting his tiny trees. Although not a fan of bonsai, when I stood before one of his two-foot-high, 100-year-old oak trees in full flower, I felt the miracle of being able to physically and mentally encompass the entirety of the oak.  You can shrink a tree, but not its flowers. The oak tassels (the name for their flowers) were their normal size, dangling like hugely oversize but still elegant ear-rings on the diminutive trees, an incongruous, arresting sight.  Some people don’t realize that trees flower, so a bonsai seen through the seasons can be instructive. Like Mr. Kalmbacher, Mr. Okamura was self-trained.  The obituary in the New York Times written by Stuart Lavietes describes how, interned in California in WWII, Mr. Okamura came to the garden to work in its neglected Japanese garden, but also waited tables and set pins in bowling alleys.  Mr. Okamura’s daughter said that he “virtually dangled off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees.”

 

The celebration offered healthy drinks.

The celebration offered healthy beverages.

I first started as a botanical instructor in Fall ’73 or early ’74, fresh from a year as a horticultural work-study student at Kew Gardens. The salary was $6000 a year so I commuted one and a half hours from home each way. Leaving a trail of corn muffin crumbs from my favorite deli in Grand Central, I carried hazelenut coffee, a book, and my earth shoes. It was in Grand Central that I bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The opening lines transported me:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Upon reading that sentence I was deeply in love with a book. An untidy passenger, I sat on the subway reading and spilling coffee but never scalded anyone but myself. Back then Grand Central was not the upscale place it is now. I remember a homeless woman in a tattered nightgown barely covered by a dirty raincoat standing on the top of the steps leading down to the Lexington Avenue line, urinating and shouting obscenities. The stream of well-dressed commuters heading to Wall Street parted in front of her and united beyond her seemingly without notice. Buffeted by the noise and the soot, I rose out of the subway as bedraggled as the Queen of the Night after flowering and entered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through a turnstile leading to the Cherry Esplanade. Calm, green, symmetrical allees of flowering cherry trees lined a central area, a place to breathe deeply, a sanctuary. I learned then and know so much more now how much work it takes to maintain a sanctuary. In the obituary mentioned above, Stuart Lavietes writes that

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

I would like to think that people, children and adults, do learn these qualities in working with plants, all plants, from liverworts to radishes to roses. I will let Ted Maclin, former coordinator of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden speak here:

Statement from

Statement from Ted Maclin, displayed in the exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

So, I learned from plants and people in my days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was poignant on June 7th to greet people that I have not seen in 40 years. The good news is that their smiles are as youthful and their eyes as bright as when I first knew them. We were happy to be together again in the garden.

 

Carolina spicebush (Calycanthus sp.) near Cherry Esplanade.

Strawberry Shrub (also known as Carolina Allspice, Sweet Shrub, Sweet Betsy, Bubby Bush [Calycanthus floridus])  near Cherry Esplanade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A walk on the wild side: Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia, looking west into Blue Grass Valley.

 

I am back, in Highland County, Virginia, exploring again, starting off a few feet from these cows. We are headed east in jeep and on foot into a parcel of land that was once cleared, but is growing back into the wild in places. As is usual here, we have to go through several gates before we are into the parcel.

 

My walking companions.

My walking companions.

We are trying to get a sense of the entire topography of this 700-some acre parcel. It’s varied, rarely flat.  We surprise a golden eagle and a bevy of vultures. They scatter in a leisurely fashion, in no hurry to leave the carrion they have found. When we have passed along, they will be back. I am not quick enough to capture the golden eagle with my iPhone, even though it is huge and moving so slowly.

 

Halfway to the top.

Halfway to the top.

 

We arrive at a little glen with a beautiful stream. It’s sparkling and luxuriant with vegetation.

Mountain stream.

Mountain stream.

Here I find a notable Appalachian wildflower: Saxifraga micranthidifolia, commonly known as branch lettuce or mountain lettuce. Native to the Great Smoky Mountains, it flourishes in cold, fast-moving mountain streams and is one of the first plants to show itself in early spring. The early settlers found it palatable and a welcome salad green after a long winter.

 

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

 

It is not in Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, so when I discovered it as a young girl in Vinegar Hollow I felt like a genuine plant explorer. I finally tracked it down in Joseph E. Harned’s Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, a book I found by chance at a second-hand bookstore. It has been called “a monumental book,” and there is no doubt that it is–written with grace and comprehensive in scope. “Micranthidifolia” remains one of my favorite botanical tongue twisters.

The mountain lettuce are abundant and so is the plant shown below, which is new to me.

 

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

 

It takes several hours of searching online to find the name  because for once Peterson and McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers fails to give me an identification, probably because it was such a big presence there in the stream, but quite small, practically hidden in the top right corner of  p. 370 among the “6-part flowers, lengthwise leaf veins, Lily Family (Liliaceae).” Peterson and McKenny instruct through arrows, using them to point to distinctive, often little-noticed features. They do have an arrow to the “heavily ribbed” leaves. I should have noticed that arrow, but I missed it.

 

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny's A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny’s A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

 

False Hellebore is also known by a host of other names, including Poor Annie, Tickleweed, and Devils Bite. This plant is not palatable, in fact just the reverse. According to one website, it is highly toxic and can cause “birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.” That sounds like just about enough results for its toxicity. Large patches of bluets carpet the path the follows the stream up the glen.

 

Bluets or Quaker Ladies (Houstonea caerulea).

Bluets, also known as Quaker Ladies, Innocence, and Little Washerwoman (Houstonia caerulea).

 

Bluets go by many names as well and are extremely  photogenic. It is certainly a pleasure to walk along a path so blue, though I am hopping because I do not wish to crush a bluet or a Quaker lady or a little washerwoman. They are in the bedstraw or madder family (Rubiaceae). The settlers are said to have stuffed their mattresses with the common bedstraw (Galium sp.), which grows in hay meadows and has a sandpapery feel. Probably because I am so dazzled by the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, and the bluets, I fail to notice two species that we see on our way back through this part of the parcel: the pink lady’s slipper and the pinxter flower, a kind of rhododendron.

 

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule).

 

Flame azalea nestled into trunk of tree with fern.

Pinxter flower nestled into trunk of tree with hayscented fern.

 

I was dazzled, but now I am delirious. These Appalachian plants touch me deeply. Pinxter flower has had several scientific names, from Rhododendron nudiflorum to the current Rhododendron periclymenoides. Nudiflorum makes perfect sense (flowering without leaves), but I will have to do further research to understand how periclymenoides adds to an understanding of the biology of this species.

We trek on, discovering an old friend from Vinegar Hollow, hound’s tongue, a member of the forget-me-not family–“downy, with a mousy odor; maroon flowers …embraced by velvety calyx scales” according to the description by Peterson and McKenny.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

 

I think I have caught its downiness in my photograph (enhanced by the slight out of focus). This is limestone country. One of my companions has worked with stone. He points to a rock with a lot of character and shows us where bear have overturned rocks to get at ants.

 

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

 

We lock gaze with a deer.

 

Deer in the undergrowth.

A deer.

 

We reach the top of the parcel.

 

At the top of the parcel.

At the top of the parcel.

The Vanderpool gap is still visible. Two stick-like black locusts stand in the center of view. The locusts are very late leafing out this year. One hopes that a blight or new pathogen is not attacking this very valuable and beautiful species. As we walk back down to the jeep, ticks, rather large ticks, attach themselves conspicuously to our pants and soon appear on our arms. My youngest companion, wearing medium-weight blue jeans, shoos away more than 30 ticks, while my companion with camouflage pants has less than half that amount, and I, with rubber wellies, only attract 10 or so. We speculate about the relative merits of what we are wearing with regard to attracting ticks, but are most preoccupied with just getting the ticks off of our clothing and bodies. One of my companions describes a nature program that showed a moose in Canada driven mad by blood-engorged ticks covering its body. We lament how hard it is to feel charitable towards this particular species. A superfluous hostility, however, should be avoided. Basically little arachnids, ticks are an old species,  having been found in fossil amber dating back to sometime in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), according to some researchers. They make their living in an unsavory way, but then so do some humans.

The pinxter flower, the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, a golden eagle, a deer, vultures, and ticks. These species and many more we have encountered on our walk. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to walk in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia in Highland County.

Upon returning to where we started, I find horses by the barn near where the cattle grazed, and a view through a window of that barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

 

Our walk is like a view through the keyhole. We have seen so much, but not everything. A parcel of land on the wild side is immense. The diversity of life forms, from bluets to ticks, inspires in me wonder and happiness.

P.S. An excellent article on the topography, biodiversity, and habitat loss of this area, titled “Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests” is available on the World Wildlife website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends, the liverworts!

Homage to the bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pears at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery.

Bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pear trees at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery in late afternoon of overcast spring day in mid-May.

May 12, 2014. Late afternoon. I am off to my husband’s tree nursery to walk the dogs. I have two now, Daisy the golden and Belle the Belgian shepherd.  Daisy, Jack’s dog, comes occasionally for a week of  camp with grandma. There is abundant visual interest in the late afternoon under a brooding spring sky that spits raindrops but not too seriously. The dandelions, the pear trees, and the green grass. That is enough to marvel at after such a long winter plagued by polar vortexes. I have walked here for years and I watch the trees grow and am sad when they depart. I walk desultorily (I constantly remind my husband that my country walks are not  fitness hikes), looking at what’s going on–the leafing out and the sprouting and the spreading and the bubbling of algae in the two little marshy ponds. I absorb the energy of exuberant growth.

 

I walk around the end of field 2 with its rows of young conifers and boxwoods, enjoying the swoosh of the tails as the doggies go in and out of the hedgerows sniffing and peeing. They are happy to be off leash in the country and that makes me happy too. I come to the end of field 2, which has a huge compost pile, a great site for giant teasel and monster mustard weeds in the summer and late fall, and a fenced enclosure for growing specialty trees and shrubs. It is not appealing to see anything fenced in, but there is so much loss to deer browsing already in the nursery that my husband reluctantly decided to fence in a small area.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line of enclosure.

 

I walk near the fence line of the enclosure. I see bare earth and something more.

Pale pink pattern of male fruiting bodies of the common liverwort.

Pale pink rosettes of male fruiting bodies of Marchantia polymorpha.

A beautiful pattern on the mud.

Zoomed in image of the one above.

I stopped, thrilled to see an old  friend, the common liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha). Years ago as a graduate student in the Botany Department at the University of Texas at Austin I spent hours looking at slides of every aspect of the life cycle of this primitive, nonflowering plant under the tutelage of the great botanist Professor Harold C. Bold. He was a stickler for life cycles, and this plant has several ways of reproducing itself.

A view of  the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

A view of the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

 

Zoom-in view of photo above.

Zoom-in view of photo above.

 

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually.

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually. (I apologize for the focus, but I find it hard to hold my iPhone steady while on my hands and knees with the dogs breathing down my neck, intensely interested in what I am doing.

I walk on, finding a patch with male and female reproductive structures near each other, which means that sperm may easily swim from the underside of their “umbrellas” to the underside of the female “umbrellas,” where sexual union may take place if circumstances (like water) are conducive. Liverwort “love” results in a very little plant, the sporophyte, which only lives on the underside of the female umbrella for a short time, producing spores. There are further explanations about “life cycle” and “alternation of generations” and “haploid vs. diploid” that I could delve into but will dash on instead to basic liverwort stuff.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

 

The “body” of a liverwort is called a thallus, and is considered primitive because there is nothing much to it at first glance, or second glance, or third glance. A thallus looks like the underside of a very skinny old green bathtub mat, the kind that has suction cups.  Or maybe I should just say that spreading thalli look like pond scum that has found its way to land, which is probably what happened millions of years ago. They do not stand. There is no water-conducting or structural tissue in the thallus. Only the reproductive structures lift themselves from the horizontal. There are so many wondrous aspects of liverwort biology that I could go on about, but I know that blogs are better short than long. I went home and dug up some of my liverwort literature. There is the grand three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

The classic

The classic three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

 

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume II.

 

Volume III.

Volume III.

I have photographed the covers because these are Schuster’s own illustrations (the Foreward notes that he drew 98% of the illustrations in the three volumes) to give a sense of the beauty of these minute plants. In the Preface Schuster writes that he traveled 175,000 miles over the 20 years of his research. His travels took him from Key West, Florida to Ellesmere Island, part of the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, a Canadian territory–“within 80 miles of the northernmost edge of land.”  He wanted to see each species as a “living, dynamic entity.” I, a native of the Appalachian mountains, take particular interest in his comment that there is a high degree of endemism in the southern Appalachians. His wife Olga typed and retyped his manuscript and critiqued his work. Professor Schuster  includes an epigraph for the book on a page directly  after the title page:

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

There is no epigraph for Volume II, but there is one for Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Schuster’s three volumes are a work of art and, as the epigraph above suggests, one good reason for lack of brevity is a textual appreciation for the diversity of flora and fauna found on planet Earth. I have learned that Professor Schuster only recently died, at 91, after a lifetime as a professor, world explorer, bryologist (one who studies mosses), botanist, and writer. Early in his career he studied at Cornell University, which is where I completed my graduate studies in botany, and not very far from where I am writing this blog. The scope of Professor Schuster’s three-volume work is daunting. For the beginner hepaticologist I recommend Non-flowering Plants, a  Golden Nature Guide. This is a wonderful series and I often go to one of their guides to get my bearings in some aspect of the natural world–minerals, spiders, seashells, fossils, ….

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

In defense of little plants, like the mosses and liverworts grouped in the plant family known as the liverworts, the eminentVictorian botanist and plant explorer Richard Spruce, who spent many years collecting, among other plants, the very beautiful leafy liverworts of South America, wrote:

The Hepaticae are by no means a ‘little family.’ They are so abundant and beautiful in the tropics, and in the Southern Hemisphere generally that I think no botanist could resist the temptation to gather them. In equatorial plains, one set creeps over the living leaves of bushes and ferns….In the Andes, they sometimes hang from the branches of trees in masses that you could embrace with your arms….I like to look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives–which beautify  the earth during life….When they are beaten to a pulp or powder in the apothecary’s mortar, they lose most of their interest for me. It is true that the Hepaticae have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food;  but if man cannot torture them to his uses or abuses, …they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in themselves–surely the primary motive for every individual existence.” (epigraph to Schuster’s Introduction of Volume I)

I take to heart what Spruce says about the primary motive for existence–to be useful, and beautiful, to oneself at least. Motivated by his love of mosses and liverworts, Spruce explored, at great expense to his health, and in doing so found bitter bark quinine and introduced it to Europe. Liverworts are useful as well as beautiful. They are known to colonize burned areas, their thalli flattened on the soil like bandaids. Indeed, my husband said that he used RoundUp (it is a commercial nursery) along the fence line of the enclosure, so it should be no surprise to find liverworts there.

 

Seeing the liverworts reminded me of my days as a young botany student, when I thought I could learn everything about all the species in the plant kingdom (and other kingdoms) and be the richer for it–richer in appreciation for the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin) that grow around us.”Studying little things”–I did a great deal of that for a number of years, peering into various kinds of microscopes in the laboratory and on my hands and knees in the field. I am the richer for it, or I would not have noticed, and respected so greatly, what was going on in the mud along the fence line of the enclosure at the tree nursery.

 

P. S. If anyone does want to know more about the life cycle of the common liverwort, please let me know! And here is my homage to Professor Harold C. Bold of the University of Texas at Austin. There is probably no book in my beloved library that I have ever read so closely as his text:

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold's Morphology of Plants.

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold’s Morphology of Plants.

I underlined almost every sentence, in pencil, as a young graduate student. Unfortunately, the  more “primitive” a plant (I put primitive in quotes because sometimes a seemingly simple organism is actually a reduced version of something that was once more ornate [elegance is often the result of the trimming of the extravagant), the more Dr. Bold expected that we students should be able to visualize and comprehend the significance of every cell in the plant body (the thallus mentioned above). It was a struggle for me then–the elaborate vocabulary (male umbrellas were anteridiophores and female umbrellas were archegoniophores), the strange convolutions of the life cycle.  I, a human being, wandered in a marvelous botanical garden.

Pages from Bold's Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.

Pages from Bold’s Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.