If I were the King of the Forest…

A little over 10 years ago, I had a job as a survey biologist. My duty was to walk endless lines through the boreal forest, stopping at set intervals to count everything that was alive that wasn’t a tree. It was a brutal job in many ways, but what it did leave me with was an endless fascination with the things most people tend to overlook. Every day for four months, I would carefully study half-meter square patches of the forest floor and marvel at the diversity of life that usually end up crushed underfoot as we hike to some breathtaking vista or stalk the woods for a glimpse of a moose or a bear.

Even though since that summer, I devoted the rest of my research years to studying ‘charismatic mega-fauna’,  it’s become sort of a ‘thing’ with me to notice all those plants and animals that everyone else seem to miss.

Today it’s horsetails, those spindly green rush-like plants that seem to pop-up everywhere once you start noticing them.  Sometimes the bane of gardeners, they’re often called scouring rushes and they come by the name honestly. If you pinch their hollow stems between your fingers, you’ll feel a rough crunch reminiscent of sandpaper. What you’re feeling is silica, embedded in the cell walls, giving what otherwise would be a limp noodle of a plant its structure.

The spindly little stalks that we see today are the remnants of what was a much more diverse and impressive group of organisms that once dominated the forests of the late Paleozoic.  If we could go back 300 million years to the Carboniferous period, we would have found ourselves walking among forests of horsetails, picking our way between trunks up to a metre thick and over 40 m tall!

For a couple hundred million years, these plants ruled the forested habitats, offering perches for species like pterosaurs and eventually Archaeopteryx. Then, in a form of evolutionary downsizing, horsetails eventually relinquished their foothold to other plants that were better-suited to the changing conditions. Like everything, forests evolved and horsetails got smaller and smaller until they all but disappeared into the understory, just another shape in the mess of green at our feet.

Still, horsetails are worth taking a closer look at. Often reviled as a weed, scouring rushes have proven useful to a number of cultures around the world. First nations used them like sandpaper to sharpen and hone everything from bone and shells used for knife points to pewter and wood. Europeans used them for scrubbing floors and campers today still sometimes use them as nature’s brillo pad.  Woodwind players may have used them to shape their reeds.  So while they may no longer be the rulers of the forest, these living fossils have shown that it’s adaptability, not size that matters when it comes to longevity.

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7 thoughts on “If I were the King of the Forest…

  1. This really appeals to me, Heather. The wonderful way you’ve brought our attention to the smaller things that comprise so much of the living matter around us, by noticing “just another shape in the mess of green at our feet.” That’s a lovely phrase by the way, capturing both our lack of attention and nature’s wild fecundity at the same time. And I’m really drawn to that bold leap you make between the modern, diminutive horsetails and their gigantic, ancient predecessors – throwing into relief our cultural fascination with the mega at the expense of the minor. Thanks for making that green mess so vivid!

    • Thanks, Julian. I’m pleased to know that it resonated with you. It’s always fascinating to discover how one’s words are interpreted by another. Sometimes what was a ‘throw away’ comment ends up being the bit that hits the hardest 🙂

      I think, as a culture, we’re easily distracted by the big shiny things, which is likely why conservation biologists continue to work with the concept of umbrella species when trying to garner protection for a region or ecosystem even though it doesn’t always work. It’s just easier for the public to rally around something they can see easily and identify with.

      I’m staring out over the ‘green mass’ as I write this and spot all sorts of other fascinating things I want to write about now … 😉

  2. I wish you could be along with me on my walks. I try to identify every plant around me, sitting in a random spot in the woods and have never yet been able to manage it – there are always mysteries to keep me working at it. I too have a fascination with the horsetails – both as a bane in my garden and as a ubiquitous, beautiful and unique treasure in the woods. Their quirky and changing shapes; the way they pop up immediately through any disturbed ground – everywhere! I’ve even used them as ‘brillo pads’! Now, with your appealingly creative image, hinting at the strength and mystery of these prehistoric looking plants, and your wonderfully written narrative, you’ve given me even more to add to my interest. I will be imagining the lowly insect perching on the fronds as dinosaurs. Thank you, Heather.

    • Hi Cindy.
      I’d love to go for a walk with you sometime. Maybe next time I’m in Edmonton, I’ll make the drive north. Still, there are plenty of plants out there that I can’t identify on the spot. Ten years is a long time to retain all that knowledge. I have a lot of good reference books, though. Besides, the mysteries are what keeps us engaged. I’d hate to reach a point where an ecosystem couldn’t surprise me.

  3. Hi Steve,

    The part that I photographed is called the strobilus. They are the flowering portion of the plant and come out early in the spring before the green ‘branches’ grow in. They don’t last very long, which may be why you’ve never seen them. They also very in size and shape between species.

    Thanks and keep looking for the little things.

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