Friday, June 6, 2008

Little white flowers sparkle in the forest

The woods are full of little white flowers now, wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca), starflowers (Trientalis borealis) and bunchberries (Cornus canadensis).

Dotted everywhere.

As if they were bright stars sparkling on the forest floor.

The sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and the clintonia (Clintonia borealis) are flowering now too.

Ferns are still unfurling but many are open now. The bracken looks like little fists on tall stems. One fist opens into three little fists, each one on its own stalk. The three little fists open into yet more tiny little fists and finally they open into bracken fronds.

When the bracken is at the at the single fist stage, ants seem attracted to it. One day I noticed that just about every bracken fist around Fritz's house had at least one ant on it. The ant doesn't do anything, it just sits there on the bracken fist. What does it want? Why is it just sitting there? Sometimes an antenna twitches but mostly they don't move. Then the other day I noticed a daisy bud with an ant on it, just sitting there. I looked around and found that each daisy bud nearby had its own ant. What are they doing? They don't seem to be eating it, they are not tending to aphids (some ants keep aphids that they "milk" for honeydew). I like to imagine that they are attending to the birth of these buds, that it is somehow a magical event for them. Or maybe they are contributing in some way to making it happen.

I've been trying to identify mosses and lichens as well, but that is difficult. I once took a course in these plants and you pretty much need a microscope to identify the mosses and various chemical tests for the lichens. However, some of them are identifiable to the genus level and there are a few that are sufficiently unique in appearance that you can identify the species by sight.

Mosses are ancient plants, sometimes referred to as "primitive" because they don't have the features of more modern plants. They don't have well developed roots, and they don't have flowers, they don't stand up well and they are always small. But they are the pioneers among plants, probably among the first colonizers of dry land in very ancient days, and still the first colonizers of bare rock (with the exception of lichens). They don't depend on well-developed soils to survive, but they do need lots of water.

The other thing about mosses is that they don't have common names. I think that the more easily identified ones used to have common names but we seem to have forgotten them. I used to have an old book of "primitive" plants and it gave common names for almost all of the plants described in it, but I have not found any reference to those common names in more recent guides. And I've forgotten all but one of them, the Step Moss. Mostly because that one is so apt and it's a moss that I really like.

The Step Moss, Hylocomium splendens, is one of the three most common mosses in the woods here. Very delicate, each branch is like a tiny fern frond. It gets its name from its habit of putting out new branches from the middle of an old branch, giving it a stair step-like appearance.

Polytrichum commune is another common moss, it stands erect in single stems, like a tiny spruce seedling with "needles" radiating out horizontally from that stem.

Pleurozium schreberi is the third common moss. You find it in thick mats, springy but dry. It branches unevenly, not in even fern frond formation like the Step Moss. The guide book I am using calls it the Big Red Stem Moss because of its red stem, the old book I used to have called it the Shining Moss, I guess because the mats of Pleurozium have a vaguely shiny appearance. I like that name better.

Not as common but still quite frequent and easily identified to the species level is Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus. What a name, eh? I wish I could tell you its common name but my memory fails me here. It was something that made me think of dancing woodland elves. The common name in my modern guide is Gooseneck Moss, which just doesn't do it justice, I'd rather call it by its formal Latin name than that. To me, its branching form does look oddly like a gaily dancing figure, arms and legs akimbo.

We have lots of Sphagnum here, the moss of very wet boggy places. Apparently you can identify it by colour, but I haven't attempted to do that yet. A very large mat of Sphagnum can look like an abstract painting, with patches of different colours, all the shades of green from dark forest to lime yellow, and rusty reds as well. Stepping into a mat of Pleurozium is pleasant because it is soft and dry, a mat of Sphagnum not so pleasant because it is much wetter and your foot is bound to sink low enough for water to get into your shoe.

I saw one liverwort the other day on my walk to the waterfall. It looked like a black tracery on a light-coloured tree trunk, probably a maple. At the time I assumed it was some kind of moss, which was close since liverworts are close allies to the mosses, but when I looked it up it turned out to be Frullania, an epiphytic liverwort. I always love finding liverworts, to me they seem like rare old plants. But you often see one of the more common ones on very wet transplants from nursery greenhouses, they seem to thrive in the moist warm atmosphere of greenhouses. I suppose because they don't have to compete with more complex plants for space and light there.

I can tell you a little about lichens, but not much. As you may know, a lichen is actually a symbiotic pairing of a fungus and an alga. Scientists have identified the various fungi and algae involved, but have been unable to cultivate these separate organisms into a single lichen in the lab. Lichens can grow on bare rock, they don't appear to need any soil at all. They can also survive in very dry and cold environments, probably the hardiest land organisms there are.

The pale green hairy stuff that grows on forest tree branches is commonly called Treebeard or Beard Moss, its Latin genus name is Usnea. So-called Reindeer Moss belongs to a lichen genus called Cladina. It is finely branched and makes fluffy looking mats on rocks among mosses. When dry it is brittle and crumbly but when wet it really is soft and fluffy. Another lichen I like but that is difficult to identify to species is Cladonia; it forms little spikes of various shapes and sizes from a flattish disk of lichen adhered to rocks. Several of them have bright red tips on the spikes and one of these is called British Soldier Lichen. Some spikes are topped by little cups, some spikes are branched. They can be anywhere from one to five cm tall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Wonderful story with such great descriptions and appreciation of the world around you! We have wild strawberries, too, and the deer love them. One day I looked out the dining room window to see a doe wandering from strawberry to strawberry lost in the flavor and quite unaware she was so near a house.

If it hadn't been so hot and dry here, I'd be out the door in a flash (after shielding myself from the sun with appropriate clothing) to look at the mosses here. Thanks!

psst! I add the Anne to my name only for you! Otherwise, I'm Barbara.