Friday, June 23, 2017

Bog Buckbean: Nothing like its name

Adults wearing hip waders and wielding nets stepped gingerly into the wetland. An ecologist had just briefed them on the importance of aquatic macroinvertebrates for studying water quality, and now it was their job to catch some critters. The public boat landing at Bark Bay Slough State Natural Area near Herbster, WI, was a gorgeous setting for this adventure.

Bark Bay Slough is a freshwater estuary where the relatively warm, sediment-laden waters of the Bark River meet the clear, icy waters of Lake Superior. The lagoon is mostly separated from the lake by a sandy baymouth bar, making it a peaceful place to study water quality. Within this unique physical setting are equally delightful plants. Mats of floating vegetation and peat soils creep in from all sides of the lagoon and support both bog and fen communities.

The students in hip waders were participants in a Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteer training course. For an entire week they were assigned to explore beautiful places with natural resource professionals and learn a little bit about everything. Some folks take the course purely as personal edification, but most students are planning to apply their newfound knowledge to volunteer or professional naturalist experiences.

My job, besides coordinating logistics and piping in with cool facts, was to take photos. So as a couple of students waded across a knee-deep channel to sample insects west of the landing, I followed behind with my camera held high. After pushing through the cattails and finding stable footing, I looked up.

The mat of fen vegetation spread out before me like a magic carpet, floating on water instead of air. From this carpet rose a thick bouquet of flowers. Clusters of delicate, pink blossoms drooped from the graceful, arching stems of bog rosemary. 

Thread-like arcs of fen sedge filled in between. Rising above them were the frilly white flowers of bog buckbean. Its beauty was the crowning jewel.

Despite its slightly hokey and incorrect name, bog buckbean is one of the most magnificent members of a fen community. Bogs and fens are often confused, so that part of the name is no surprise. Bogs are peaty wetlands that receive all or most of their water from precipitation rather than from runoff, groundwater or streams. They are characterized by acidic soils with few nutrients. Fens are also peaty wetlands, but they receive input from groundwater, runoff, or other sources, which decreases their acidity and increases nutrients. The water of this peatland in the Bark Bay Slough meets and mixes with water from the estuary, which makes the bog buckbean’s habitat a fen.

The “buck” part of the flower’s name may be a corruption of the name Puck, who was a clever, mischievous elf in old English folklore. According to one account, the children of Devonshire, England, used to address Puck before traveling through the forest after dark, to ask for protection.

How the character and the plant came together is still a mystery to me, but this does bring up the fact that bog buckbean is found in wetlands around the globe! From North America to northern Asia, Europe, and Japan, this beautiful flower remains the same species. It’s a small world. Also unusual is that Menyanthes trifoliata is the only flower in its genus.

One alternative name of bog buckbean is bog hop, which refers to the English use of its bitter leaves to flavor beer. Those leaves are divided into three oval leaflets, and they must have reminded someone of the shape of broad beans from their garden because the “bean” in this plant’s name refers to their shape.

It’s the magnificent flowers, though, that really steal the show. The tall, cone-shaped inflorescence holds many feathery, white, star-like blossoms. The feathery petals aren’t a simple vanity. Pollination is carried out by bumblebees and other big bees. Small insects aren’t effective pollinators, so lacy fringes on the petals protect the flower’s valuable nectar from freeloaders.

The flowers make another investment in cross-pollination as well: some plants have a long pistil (female flower part) and short stamens (pollen-bearing flower parts), and some plants have the opposite combination. If a bee gets dusted with pollen from a long stamen, that pollen won’t rub off on another flower with a long stamen. Instead, the pollen will be at the perfect height to cross-pollinate a buckbean flower with a long pistil.

Looking back at my photos, all the buckbean flowers in this fen seem to have five, short, violet-colored stamens and a tall, yellow pistil in the center. Buckbean spreads more through rhizomes than seeds, so it’s quite possible that all of these flowers are part of the same wandering plant, connected by a network of horizontal stems.

After photographing the flowers and students, I bounced a few times on the floating mat of the fen, and wandered back to the group at the landing. Naturalists with nets had caught some neat little insects. After lunch, we paddled out to the baymouth bar and walked across to Lake Superior.

Geology, ecology, botany, biology, and people: all had come together for a special day at a special place.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Summer Blooms with Lois Nestel

On a recent mountain bike ride with a group of women, I quickly fell behind the lead group while easily staying far ahead of the beginner group. Alone in the forest on the first hot day, it was bliss. The Makwa Trail flowed gracefully through deciduous woods south of Seeley, WI, and as evening fell, I wallowed in the rich smells of the summer woods.

Riding alone allowed me to stop and smell the roses. The bright white flowers of wild strawberries and the canary yellow flowers of barren strawberry (both in the Rose Family) lined the trail. The first produces a juicy red berry, the second, despite its similar set of three toothy leaves and five-petaled flowers, only makes a few dry seeds. Trilliums, violets, starflowers, bluebead lily, and a late-blooming wood anemone also caught my eye.

Barren Strawberry along the Makwa Trail

Wild Strawberry

I’m pretty sure that Lois Nestel, the Museum’s first naturalist and director, would never have joined me on a mountain bike ride, but I know I would have loved walking attentively through the woods with her. This week, I’d like to share her description of the residents of woods and fields as summer begins to bloom. Slow down a minute with me, we’ll smell the roses, and I think you’ll find it rewarding.

Lois wrote, “Although the woodland flowers of spring are passing as increased foliage cuts off the light, there are still numbers of delightful varieties to be found. Both pink and yellow lady-slippers are blooming now as are some of the bog orchids. Many smaller shade-loving blooms may also be found if one cares to expend the extra energy to find them. Dainty gold-thread, pipsissewa, and twinflowers lift their lovely blooms only two or three inches above the forest duff. The dwarf dogwood, known as bunchberry, masses its four-petaled green and ivory flowers along banks and around old stumps, and nearby the yellow bloom of Clintonia or bluebead lily may be found.

“But from now until autumn the floral emphasis will be upon the blossoms of open areas, roadsides, fields and glades—and the variety seems endless. Drifts of color along roadsides and in meadows are more spectacular than are the more modest flowers of spring. Daisies, hawk-weed, and other composites now dominate the scene, and the yellow-flowered salsify, best known in late summer for its huge dandelion-like seed head (commonly known as goat’s beard), is one of the most interesting. It is related to the oyster plant grown in gardens.

“Perhaps the loveliest flower of the season is the wild rose, and differences in varieties and habitat allow their season to be quiet extended. While color may vary from deep pink to almost white, the typical rose fragrance varies little. Simple perfection personifies the rose.

“In damp meadows, golden alexanders spread their wheels and along the edges, in sheltered nooks, wild columbine nods its spurred bells. In drier fields and roadsides, flat-topped aromatic heads of yarrow vary from dingy white to mauve or pink. From hillside to hallow, from northern to southern exposure, great differences can be seen in the development of the floral community. In sunny, open areas some plants will already be seeding while their counterparts in cool depressions are only in bud.

“Summer’s profusion together with our modern way of life can be a disadvantage. Traveling swiftly by car, one sees sheets and belts and blurs of color…sees and yet does not see. The quantity bedazzles, the quality is not seen.

“Take time to walk, to examine the intricacies of the individual flower; look for the less obvious. It is rewarding.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Honeysuckle: Old Friends

I love to meet old friends when I’m on a walk in the woods. Not human friends, mind you, but plant friends. During spring and early summer, when the undergrowth isn’t too thick, I often spot the distinctive shapes of honeysuckle bushes. Northern fly honeysuckle, (Lonicera canadensis), is an almost fragile looking native shrub with smooth oval leaves that line up in pairs along the twigs.

Native Fly Honeysuckle

If you’re lucky, you might spot the honeysuckle’s pale yellow flowers dangling in their delicate pairs. Their fluted shape with a long nectar tube is a clue that hummingbirds love them. The flowers don’t last long, though, and are soon replaced by two green fruits, shaped a little bit like tiny footballs, and joined at their pointy ends. The berries ripen to a vibrant shade of red and really pop in the cool shade of the forest. Birds, especially robins and cardinals, love them.

Sometimes (too often!) the old friend I meet in the woods is more of a “frenemy,” or a plant that I have a love-hate relationship with. I grew up with Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) in my backyard, and spent many days gathering the round red and orange berries to use as pretend food in my playhouse. Now I know that this childhood friend can be quite invasive. A native of China, Manchuria, and Korea, it left behind its native predators when it came here, and tends to run rampant in our vacant lots and deciduous woods, creating impenetrable thickets in the worst cases. It’s joined by several other species of non-native invasive honeysuckles that all share the same invasive tendencies.

While native and non-native honeysuckles share some characteristics, it’s not hard to tell them apart. All have pairs of white, pink or yellow flowers with a nectar tube and fluted petals. All have paired leaves (“opposite arrangement” to botanists,) and all have red or orange berries. The invasive honeysuckles get much bigger and bushier, though, and some species have pointed, serrated, or fuzzy leaves. Their abundant flowers are held upright. Plus, the berries on invasive honeysuckles are round instead of football-shaped.

Non-native honeysuckle

The surest way to distinguish the honeysuckles in any season is to crack open a twig and look at the pith. The pith is the soft, spongy tissue in the center of the stem. In native honeysuckles the pith is pure and white. In non-native species the pith is either brown or hollow.

Native honeysuckles have a white pith.

Non-native honeysuckles have a hollow or brown pith in the center of their twig.

Like many invasive species, the Eurasian species of honeysuckles tend to crowd out native plants and provide a lower quality food source to native animals. As birds and mammals eat the berries and disperse the seeds, non-native honeysuckles quickly invade open woodlands, old fields, and other disturbed sites, and form a dense thicket that prevents other native plants and trees from growing. The northern fly honeysuckle is one that gets pushed out by its cousin.

With lower diversity, the wildlife cover is reduced, and cardinal nests in particular are less successful, despite the thicket. Fewer insects in the honeysuckle reduce food sources for many warblers and flycatchers. Although abundant, the berries actually contain less fat and energy than their native counterparts. When cedar waxwings eat too many red honeysuckle berries, the pigment tints their normally yellow tail tip and turns it orange. On the flip side, male cardinals who eat honeysuckle may be brighter red, even though they are less fit. Females have a harder time determining the healthiest mates.

As you pass yard after yard surrounded by Eurasian honeysuckle hedges in full bloom, it’s easy to imagine how this invader got here. It was first introduced into North America as an ornamental in 1752! Many invasives got their start in the nursery trade, either as the main attraction or a hitchhiker. This June is Wisconsin’s 13th Annual Invasive Species Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn more about what you can do to help.

Prevention is worth an ounce of cure, so they say, and it is definitely easier to keep the weeds out than to get rid of them once they’re here. Do a little research before you buy new plants from a nursery, and try to choose to plant native species. Use those boot brushes at trailheads to make sure that you aren’t carrying seeds from trail to trail. Clean your equipment between locations, especially if you know that you’ve just been working in a place that has invasive species. Equipment includes boats! Aquatic invasive species are a big threat to Wisconsin lakes and streams, and making sure to clean, drain, and dry all of your equipment can help stop their spread. The Wisconsin DNR website has great information and Best Management Practices for a variety of situations to make sure that we aren’t accidentally spreading a new plague.

If you discover an invasive species on your property or public land, contact Adam Haecker, Coordinator for the Northwoods Cooperative Weed Management Area (NCWMA) by calling 715-373-6167 or emailing He, or a variety of the local land management agencies, can help you set up a management plan to control the offending invader.

This June, be sure to enjoy all of the native flowers that brighten up our woods, and then protect their future by doing your part reduce the impact of invasive species.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Looking for Lichens

When I found them, I was looking for lichens.

Lichens are those pale green (and sometimes yellow, orange, or bluish) things that grow on trees and rocks. They aren’t a single thing. There are many types of lichens, and they are examples of partnerships between fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, and a host of other little critters. We’re highlighting them in our Better Together exhibit this year. Not everyone knows what lichens look like, though, so I wanted to gather examples for a little display.

My search took me through a sun-specked hemlock forest. Blackburnian warblers, ovenbirds, and vireos twittered from the treetops. A broad-winged hawk gave its high-pitchedkee-ee” alarm whistle from a secluded treetop, probably defending a nest.

Across the ravine, a surprisingly loud, clear, insistent stream of tinkling notes gave away the position of a winter wren. These tiny, mouse-like birds dance around the forest floor, fallen logs, and tangled root masses. From a distance, they look like a wind-tossed leaf. They’re so hard to find and focus on that I’ve hardly ever even examined them through binoculars. Ever hopeful—my camera ready—I followed the fluttering up to a perch on a weathered stick, then down to a mossy log, and then back to a different stick. Click, click, click…I finally captured the blur of a winter wren.

The wren didn’t stop singing, but I headed up and over the hill anyway. Sticks lay strewn across the path from a series of spring storms. One in particular looked a little odd. Rubbery brown disks, about the size of quarters, clustered all along the branch, sticking out at odd angles. I poked at one with my finger, admiring the smooth, cool surface, and the springy way it flexed. Quite appropriately, these jelly fungi are called “tree-ear.”

Unlike some fungi, tree-ears do not attack live trees. They are saprobes that feed only on dead wood. The fungi do contribute to destruction, though, because they can absorb 63 times their dry weight in water. During our recent wet weather, these fungi became waterlogged and pulled down the already weakened dead twig.

Despite all these distractions, I actually did manage to find some lichens. I peeled a leafy green lichen disk off a fallen aspen tree, picked up some twigs covered in colorful crust lichens, and sliced off a few flakes of bark with powdery lichen coatings, too. With my basket just about full, there was still one more lichen I wanted to find: a pelt lichen that grows on the ground. Their leathery, brown thalli (leaf-like parts) often form patches among the moss, so I began searching the ground as I walked along the cut bank of the trail. 

After just a few feet, I spotted a patch of their dark, undulating thalli. As I reached down to pry them up, another shape materialized in my line of vision. When I found it, I was looking for lichens.

The pale brown cylinder was dissected by ridges and pits, almost forming a honeycomb pattern. It was held erect on a smooth little stem, and the whole thing was only a few inches tall. I couldn’t believe my eyes. For the six years that I’ve lived up here, I’ve always raised my eyebrows in disbelief and nodded my head dubiously when folks told me they found morel mushrooms nearby. I’m out in the woods quite a bit, and I’d never seen one up here. They’re more common even a little farther south where there is a wider array of deciduous trees and a little bit richer soil. And, of course, no one would reveal their special spot so that I could see for myself.

But there they were. Four little morels all told—unmistakably the real ones and not the darker brown false morels that turn to jet fuel in your stomach.

In her fantastic book, “Mycophilia,” Eugenia Bone writes that “Morels are probably the most fetishized of all wild mushrooms.” If people know how to identify and eat just one mushroom, it is the morel.

There is more to appreciate about morels beyond their delicate texture, rich flavor, and ability to hold butter. Most morels (there are several species) are thought to be mycorrhizal. This means that they colonize the root system of a tree. The fungal mycelia increase the water and nutrient absorption capabilities of the roots, and the tree shares some of its sugars with the morel. It’s a classic partnership, and one that’s repeated throughout the forest with various combinations of plants and fungi. In fact, scientists estimate that 90% of plant species on Earth form a similar mycorrhizal relationship with fungi.

Maybe it’s appropriate then, during my search for lichens, to happen upon this additional example of a photosynthetic organism (the tree) partnering with a fungus (the morel).

Arriving home, I gently sliced open the morels lengthwise. This is an important step in the cooking process because confirming their perfectly hollow stem is the best way to avoid misidentification. As the tidbits cooked gently in the skillet, I uploaded photos onto my computer. What wonderful things I found while out looking for lichens!

Special Request: If you enjoy Emily's book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses, and think it should be available for more people to read, then take a moment and request it at your local library and bookstore! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Least Flycatcher

Birdsong filtered through the window screen even before the sunlight could. The day before, I’d woken up to the syncopated trill with a blisteringly high finale of Blackburnian warblers. Now there was a new voice in the mix. This was the second weekend in May, and each day a new wave of migrants swept in, contributing their songs to the growing chorus.

Although, I’m not sure I’d call the new addition a song exactly, at least in the traditional sense. The sound was a short, emphatic, “che-bec” with an insect-like quality and an accented second syllable. It took me two weeks of my first ornithology class to recognize this noise as coming from a bird. I didn’t even hear it at first; much less distinguish it from the other call notes and red squirrel chatter going on around me. Once I learned it, though, I heard it everywhere.

Occasionally I see the vocalist too, although that takes more work as the tree leaves emerge at breakneck speed and fill in the lacy network of twigs. Least flycatchers are cute little birds that weigh just over four pennies. Like most of their Empidonax flycatcher cousins, they have grayish-olive backs, whitish underparts, a white eye ring, and white wing bars.

They can often be spotted as they “hawk” for insects, which entails flying out from a perch, snatching a snack out of midair, and fluttering back to the same branch or another one nearby. This describes both the general appearance and behavior of a whole group of small, drab flycatchers in the Empidonax genus. Their songs are the most distinctive things about them. The reason that their voices are so distinctive fascinates me.

Other “true” songbirds will spend one period of brain development memorizing songs of adults, and the next phase trying to match them. This is true of the high-trilling Blackburnian warblers I heard earlier. If a songbird does not grow up with adults of its own species, or can’t hear, it does not develop a normal song. Flycatchers do not need to do either! They do not need to hear other adults in order to produce the typical che-bec song, and they do not even need to hear themselves to know that they are saying it correctly.

And yet, many birders would still consider these rote repetitions their “song.” You could say that the definition is based more on function than structure. A song, at least for many birders, is simply a sound made in order to establish and defend a territory, or to facilitate courtship and mating. With this definition, you can argue that the drumming of ruffed grouse and woodpeckers, booming of prairie chickens, and the wing sounds of a displaying woodcock are all “songs.”

In contrast, many birds also have shorter, simpler “calls,” that sound the alarm or keep members of a flock in contact.

While my morning walk was filled with least flycatchers che-bec-ing every twenty feet, and Blackburnian warblers trilling away, my evening stroll included a soundtrack by the common loon.

Loons are definitely not songbirds, but the males do have a distinctive territorial vocalization, known as the yodel. It’s a maniacal, up-and-down scream that clearly conveys the serious and stressful business of defending a territory (often at 3:00 a.m. when we’re trying to sleep), and each loon has his own version. The amazing thing is that when an invading loon is successful in winning a new territory, he will change his yodel. The new composition increases the difference between his yodel and that of the previous, defeated resident, while being careful not to stray too far outside of the norms for the neighborhood.

When comparing the loon’s ability to change his “song” throughout his lifetime in response to specific events, to the warbler’s reliance on a distinct period of brain development, and the flycatcher’s innate and immobile programming, well, it’s easy to be amazed by how many different ways there are to be successful. Each system works for the bird who uses it. I think maybe there’s a lesson in that?

Special Request: If you enjoy Emily's book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses, and think it should be available for more people to read, then take a moment and request it at your local library and bookstore! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, May 19, 2017


Fresh sunshine warmed my bare arms and legs as I biked along County Highway D east of Lake Namakagon. The joy of speed, freedom, and my trusty steed brought on an irrepressible smile. As we neared the bridge over a marshy flowage, a cacophony of bird songs began to cut through the whirr of tires on pavement and wind in my helmet. We pulled over onto the shoulder for a better look.

Red-winged blackbirds gurgled and trilled their early spring song that is so energetic it seems to cause ice to melt and streams to flow. A pair of Canada geese honked harshly from their grassy hummock; building their pair bond by shouting together. And then a rattling cry ripped through the air. My head snapped up automatically as I followed the sound and the blur with both my ears and eyes. Finally my focus landed on a slate-blue shape just settling on the branch of a broken snag.

“Kingfisher,” I said out loud, even though we both knew it already, as I whipped binoculars out of my bag. Just back from Central America, his breast was pure white with a jaunty blue band to match his powder-blue tux. A female would have had a beautiful rusty bar across her belly. Belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species where the females are more colorful than the males.

Belted Kingfishers are one of the few birds where females are more brightly colored than the males.

In the next moment I realized that he had something in his mouth—a large minnow probably—and he was whacking it against the branch over and over with sideways jerks of his head. At some point he decided that it was sufficiently dead. He tipped his head back, gave the fish a little toss, and down the hatch it disappeared!

While this minnow was comfortably bite-sized, kingfishers, who are thirteen inches long at most, have been known to eat fish up to seven inches long. Their trick? They leave part of the fish hanging out of their beak until stomach juices digest enough of the fish that it can slide in all the way. Also, the bird’s tiny tongue stays out of the way.

Young kingfishers have such strong stomach acids that they can digest fish and crayfish completely—bones, shells, and all. Once they leave the nest, kingfishers regurgitate pellets filled with the indigestible bits, just like owls do.

Those young belted kingfishers, who hatch in May or June, keep their parents busy by consuming their body weight in food each day. Luckily, kingfishers live up to their name with the help of several adaptations.

First, they can scope for prey either from a poolside perch or by hovering in one place high above the water. Like many birds, kingfishers have excellent eyesight. Oil droplets on their cone cells enhance their color vision and reduce glare as they search for prey. Two focal points in their eyes allow them to adjust for the change in refraction between air and water as they dive after a fish. The position of these two foveae gives kingfishers monocular vision in the air (each eye is used separately) and binocular vision underwater (which allows them to judge distance). A third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, acts like protective goggles.

When a kingfisher dives underwater, its sturdy, conical beak wedges into the water and pushes it aside with minimal impact or splash. Japanese bullet trains, which operate at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour and carry more passengers than any other rail line in the world, imitate the aerodynamics of the kingfisher’s beak to reduce noise pollution and improve fuel efficiency.

After grabbing the fish or crayfish with its vise-like bill, the kingfisher flies up to a perch to whack away, just like I witnessed. The chicks are fed small fish or regurgitated food. As the young grow up, parents teach kids to hunt by dropping fish into the water for the students to retrieve, just like in common loon families.

While their hunting adaptations are amazing, the kingfisher’s strangest adaptation is used for digging their nest burrow in a sandy embankment. Their inner two toes are fused together, resulting in what appears be a single flattened toe. This trait, called syndactyly, is not common, but it is shared by kangaroos, wallabies, opossums, koalas, and wombats.

I will never cease to be amazed by the ways that nature has sharpened its every skill and perfected its many tools for survival. As we hopped on our bikes (wonderful products of human adaptation and innovation) to continue the ride, an osprey soared overhead, itself a magnificent example of adaptation. Admiringly I glanced back toward the kingfisher, and “with a rough and easy cry…he swung back over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it (as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.” (Mary Oliver, “Kingfisher”)

Special Request: If you enjoy Emily's book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses, and think it should be available for more people to read, then take a moment and request it at your local library and bookstore! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, May 12, 2017

An Ephemeral Mystery

On one of those damp, gray days in early April, I joined the North County Trail Navigators to hike a brand new section of trail east of Copper Falls State Park, near Mellen, WI.

Sara, one of the group's founder, found a beaver chew!

Light was low, but our spirits were high. Many of these women completed the 100-mile challenge on the North Country Trail (NCT) for the National Park Service’s birthday last year. Now they’re addicted, and are trying to hike this year’s miles before the mosquitoes hatch.

Joan found a bird nest.

From the gravel road where we parked, the trail snaked its way through a beautiful sugar maple forest. The rich soil, typical of maple forests, was soft and loamy. Great for plants, but not for hiking boots. We giggled, whooped, and exclaimed as we slipped and slid through mushy spots. With use, the soil will compact and become a more durable tread, but ours were some of the first boots to travel here.

I was at the end of the line, chatting away, when I heard my name called up ahead. One of the women had spotted a mystery near the trail. In several patches, each about the size of a manhole cover, the thick maple leaf duff was pushed away. Laying exposed on the black soil were scattered chains of yellow-green plant roots that reminded me of the little plastic pop-together necklaces I won at carnivals as a kid. Each segment of the rhizome was an oval-shaped “bead.” Also visible were the lacy network of regular, thin roots.

Many of the spring flowers that like to grow under maple trees survive most of the year just as underground roots, rhizomes, or bulbs. Photo by Emily Stone.

Of course, with a naturalist along, the group wanted an explanation of what we’d found. I pulled out my camera to photograph the creeping rootstocks, but couldn’t put a name on the discovery. A few tiny clusters of curled-up leaves sprouted from the ends of the segments, but they weren’t big enough for a confident identification. All I could do for the ladies was list of a few possibilities: blue cohosh, trout lily, spring beauty, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, wood anemone…the list of possibilities was long.

One thing that I was certain of was that these roots belonged to a spring ephemeral. This category of flowers completes their entire life cycle in the two months or so between snow-melt and leaf-out. Instead of adapting to grow in the oppressive shade of the summer forest canopy, these little plants take advantage of the full sunshine of early spring.

During their brief growing season, spring ephemerals bury an energy reserve in tuberous roots, modified underground stems, or bulbs. Those storage units lay dormant—and protected from drought or cold—through the winter. Come spring, leaves and flowers erupt quickly with the plentiful moisture and sunshine, provide food for early pollinating insects, and then restock their provisions before melting away under the deepening summer shade.

Because so many of the spring flowers that inhabit maple forests have similar strategies, the roots we found could potentially belong to any number of the sweet and beloved blooms that grace each spring. To me, this was the most interesting part of the mystery. I did, of course, do some research at home to try and match these particular roots with a name. It’s hard to find good, identifiable photos of roots, though. Happily, the challenge just meant that in order to solve the mystery with confidence, I would have to return to this beautiful trail once the leaves had expanded.

My chance came two weeks later. The trail was only slightly dryer, but the scenery had gone through a delightful change. Little green leaves pushed up everywhere, but mostly they sprouted out of the trail itself, where dark soil had warmed more quickly than the pale duff. Trout lilies, trilliums, leeks, oh my! And then I noticed a small patch of those mysterious, yellow-green segmented roots. Erupting out of their tips were the tiny palm tree-like leaves and clustered flower buds of cut-leaved toothwort. Mystery solved.

Each spring, the sugar stored in cut-leaved toothwort rhizomes fuels the growth of leaves and flowers. 
Photo by Emily Stone.

Cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata or Cardamine concatenate) is a widespread spring ephemeral in the mustard family. Its common name describes both the narrow, toothy leaves, and also the canine tooth-shaped sections of it rhizomes. Its elongate cluster of pretty white flowers will each have four petals. True to its family, the leaves and the rhizomes of toothwort have a spicy taste, similar to wasabi. The flavor probably deters some herbivores, but it’s actually encouraged people to use it as a condiment and a medicine over the years. I chewed on a leaf, and it tasted like a very plain mustard.

One herbivore that isn’t deterred is the caterpillar of the West Virginia White, a Wisconsin State Special Concern butterfly. The butterfly lays eggs on a few species of native toothworts, and the caterpillars must grow up before their short-lived food plants senesce for the summer. In an unfortunate twist, the non-native, invasive garlic mustard shares chemical cues that attract egg-laying butterflies, but it provides inadequate nutrition for the caterpillars.

In any case, it was fun to identify friends along the trail as we all race to make the most of spring.

Cut-leaved toothwort is one of the earliest flowers to bloom. Its four petals range from white to pink, and they often droop until the sun comes out. Photo by Emily Stone. 

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