Sweetness and Light

Portrait of Fireweed by Heather HinamThe first blush of spring flowers has long since faded, leaving forests and fields to settle into the rich greens and sunny yellows of mid-summer. Still, the decidedly verdant palette is broken now and then by a showy splash of pink, startling against the endless green, like flame in the darkness.

These tall, fuschia spires are fireweed, nature’s phoenix, rising out of the ashes of destruction and bringing colour back to the land. They also happen to be one of my favourite flowers; but not for a reason that’s immediately obvious. They’re actually rather tasty.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time visiting a friend in the Yukon. We had an amazing time exploring the western edge of the territory, camping out in the shadow of the Rockies in the still long days of early fall.

In the airport on the way home, I spotted it, jars of a clear pink, gleaming in the fluorescent light of the gift shop: fireweed jelly. I had to try it and after tasting its delicate, sweet flavour, I had to figure out how to make it.

Turns out, the second part of that equation was harder than I expected it to be. Over 10 years ago, the internet was not as vast and I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere. After much searching, I ended up finding what I needed in a dusty old text squirrelled away in the Winnipeg public library.  I actually found a lot of ways to cook wild edibles in that book; but most coveted was my recipe that will work for any petal-based jelly.

We’ve been blessed with an abundance of fireweed this summer in Grindstone; but I’ve been so busy with other work that I haven’t had time to go out and harvest. It’s fairly time-consuming labour. Picking the flowers is easy enough. You just need a pair of scissors, long pants and something to store the feathery spikes in. Once you get them home, the fun part starts: separating the blossoms from the stem. I usually end up spending a good hour plucking the flowers, one by one, dropping them into a bowl and setting the green bits (which are also edible) aside. By the end, your fingers will be died purple and the rest of you will be crawling with crab spiders and leaf hoppers; but it will be worth it in the end, trust me.

Once you have your blossoms, stuff as many as you can into a pint sealer jar and cover the lot with boiling water.  Let the developing tea steep for 24 hours in a dark space (to keep the sunlight from washing out the delicate colour). Strain out the now leeched-white blossoms and pour the liquid into a deep pot, adding 1 1/2 cups of sugar for every cup of tea (3 cups to a pint). Add a teaspoon of lemon juice and bring to a rolling boil, letting it go for a good minute. Add 6 oz of liquid pectic to the mix and boil hard for another minute or so. Take it off the heat and skim any foam before carefully filling sealer jars and proceed to can it according to direction.

This recipe doesn’t make much, but it’s flavour is worth it. If you’re concerned about the colour once you’ve strained out the blossoms (sometimes it can look a little brownish), you can add a tablespoon or so of strawberry juice. It won’t affect the taste, but will keep it nice and pink.

Fireweed is one of those flowers that just seems designed to bring joy wherever it grows. As suggested by its name, its rhizomic habit makes them one of the first colonizers to bring colour back to a fire-blackened forest, springing up through the ash from runners in the underlying soil.

This year, the bright blossoms brought beauty back to the devastation wrought by Manitoba Hydro after they cleared the area around their power lines of shrubs and trees in my area. As my friend, Cindy mentions in her recent post on the same subject, thanks to their tenacious rhizomes that can knit their way through the soil up to almost half a metre deep, fireweed managed to find its way into the centre of London after the city was ruined in places by World War II bombs. To me this hardy denizen of northern forests and fields is a reminder to all of us that even in the face of humanity at its ugliest and most destructive, nature always manages to find a way to bring light back to the earth.

A Breath of Life

Poplar bud in springSpring is in full-swing here now. In the southern reaches of Manitoba, some trees have leafed out almost fully and many of the ornamental fruit trees are in full bloom. At home around the lake, however, things are moving just a little slower. The first blush of green is only now enveloping the forest and I find it fascinating how only a few hundred kilometers can make such a difference in to the rate of renewal after winter’s chill.

As with many natural processes, day-length does play a role, but the story here is much longer and more complicated than that. In fact, the stage for each spring’s grand entrance is set the previous fall.

The shortening autumn day signals to the tree that it’s time to enter into a period of dormancy, sort of a forced vacation, where all systems shut down to preserve the tree’s tissues and protect it from freezing temperatures and water loss. Before it enters into this stasis, the tree uses the last of its growing resources to form the buds for the following year, encasing these primordial leaves in waxy scales that hold them in place until they get the go ahead to continue development.

After everything shuts down for the winter, the process shifts into a sort of time-release mechanism. Each species has it’s own mandatory vacation period, a set number of cold days it must endure before any warming will trigger the growth of new leaves. That period, however, is usually shorter than the average Canadian winter. So if we get a sudden early warming, like we did this year in March, it can trigger the start of new leaves, which can then be a death sentence if the forest is then hit with another cold snap. Alternatively, really warm autumns or warm winters can delay the onset of budding by pushing back the point at which the ‘mandatory cold period’ started. This reliance on temperature to maintain their cycle may make it very difficult for trees to adapt to the rapid changes in climate patterns we’re starting to witness.

Here in Manitoba’s boreal, however the wave of green is sweeping across the landscape as it always has this time of year. It happens so fast, that if you’re not paying attention, you can miss the in between stages and those are the best parts.

My absolute favourite time is when the Balsam Poplar’s (Populus balsamifera) buds (pictured above) begin to swell to bursting. They’re full of sticky, volatile oils that fill the air with a warm heady scent, that’s a pleasant mix of vanilla, cut fir boughs and Vicks Vaporub. I’ll never forget my first experience with a Balsam Poplar stand in full bud. It’s an amazing smell that washes through you, leaving you both calm and invigorated all at the same time.

Balsam poplar buds in oil

Soaking up the sun – Steeping balsam poplar buds in oil, the beginnings of Balm of Gilead

The healing effect may not just be limited to your sense of well-being. For centuries, Aboriginals and European immigrants alike have used poplar buds for medicinal purposes, typically warming them in some sort of fat to draw out the oils and then using the resulting salve on everything from wounds, eczema, and rashes to lining the inside of the nose to clear up airways. I learned how to tease the benefits from the bud from a woman living in the farmlands north of Swan River, Manitoba.

After steeping the buds in a good-quality oil in the sun for several days, strain off the liquid and thicken it with beeswax. The result is known as Balm of Gilead and makes a nice skin cream that smells wonderful.  Beyond it’s fragrance, the oils also contain salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has been used as an analgesic by many cultures.

Whether it’s grounded in chemistry or not,  I still believe there is nothing better for your health and well-being than getting out an experiencing the first breath of life that is spring in the forest and surrounding yourself in its fragrant, verdant beginnings.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

No matter how hard we cling to the long light, crisp mornings and golden trees, fall, like all good things, must eventually come to an end. Autumn is gasping its last breaths here in the boreal forest as the cold November winds sweep away the last of the colour and hard frosts condition us for the deep freeze to come.

Our last blaze of glory before the forests fade to the dull greys and bleached greens of winter comes from an unlikely source, a tree that should be an evergreen. I’m talking about the Tamarack (Larix laricina).

Also known as larches, tamaracks are conifers, needle-bearing trees; but unlike their boreal forest brethren, they are one of the only North American evergreens that don’t remain ‘ever-green’. Tamaracks are deciduous conifers, a beautiful paradox that bring one last flash of light to the forest before it’s extinguished by the wind scattering their needles all over the ground like a Christmas tree in January.

So, why do they do it? Did larches miss the ‘conifers are evergreens’ memo?

The jury seems to still be deliberating on the evolutionary history, costs and benefits of this strategy, but when you take a step back and think about it, larches are taking advantage of the best of both worlds. Broadleaf trees, like aspen and birch, create leaves that are relatively cheap to produce, with a large surface area-to-volume ratio that makes them high-efficiency photosynthetic factories. Unfortunately, that large surface area also makes them incapable of handling wild swings in temperature and moisture. So, deciduous trees cut their losses and lose their leaves when conditions no longer favour them.

Conifers take a different approach. Their needles are built to last, their low surface area-to-volume ratio and waxy covering make them much more resistant to temperature and moisture extremes. This allows the tree to keep them all year, which is necessary, because they don’t produce nearly as much energy through photosynthesis as their deciduous counterparts.

Tamaracks straddle the fence. Their needles are soft and long, with thinner cuticles and a little more surface area. This allows them to make the most of the summer sun and produce as much food as possible through photosynthesis, while protecting them from the wild swings in temperature and moisture typical of the northern boreal forests. Having needles also makes it possible to extend their season, turning sunlight into food right through to the end of October. Then, when the frosts set in and snow is in the clouds, the photosynthetic pigments shut down, leaving the needles a brilliant gold before they flutter to the ground. Without the added strain of maintaining their needles, the tree can survive  harsh winters that can sometimes damage other conifers.

This strategy has allowed tamaracks to survive and even thrive in some pretty difficult habitats, from the edge of the Arctic treeline to the waterlogged and acidic soils of bogs.

As a field biologist, I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with tamarack. Whenever I spotted a stand of these trees towering in the distance along my survey line, I knew that I would soon find myself up to my knees in water and would spend the rest of the day trying to dry out my boots. Then, I would find myself in their midst, their soft, feathery limbs brushing me as I passed as though welcoming me into their world. Now, it’s a world a return to visit as often as I can.

And I see your True Colours Shining Through

My favourite season tends to depend on my mood, but most often, my answer is autumn. It’s refreshing, a cool breeze washing away the heavy haze of summer. Paradoxically, it also feels warm, like shrugging into your favourite coat as you catch a whiff of someone’s wood stove in the crisp morning air.

I think it’s the colours of fall that give the days their warmth. The cool greens slowly fade into yellows, golds, russets and umbers. The forests are suddenly ablaze with a riot of hues.

In the boreal mixedwood forest where I live, the dominant colour is yellow. The poplars and birches sparkle with it against the sapphire September sky. Still, if you look closer to the ground, you can find a little more variety. The dogwoods (Corylus stolonifera) go purple, their leaves a lovely compliment to their reddish branches. The mountain maple (Acer spicatum), like the one pictured above, show quite a bit of variation, ranging from a pale yellow in individuals that are growing in the shade to brilliant orange and deep red for those lucky shrubs that are exposed to full sun.

But, where do these colours come from?

To a certain degree, they’re always there, hiding just below the surface, waiting for their curtain call. New, functioning leaves are full of chlorophyll, a brilliant green pigment that is packed into structures within the cell appropriately known as chloroplasts.  These are the food factories for the tree, working throughout the growing season to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into nourishing sugars via photosynthesis that are then funnelled into the rest of the tree. During this period, chlorophyll is constantly being degraded and replaced, keeping the leaves a brilliant green, overshadowing any other colours lurking within.

However, as the days become shorter and the sun’s intensity begins to wane, these factories shut down, using up their last stores of chlorophyll until there’s nothing left. Once the green is gone, the veil is pulled back giving other the hues a chance to shine. Carotenoids, a pigment that also plays a role in photosynthesis, remains, painting the trees with bright yellows and oranges. Some leaves also contain pigments known as anthocyanins, a watery dye that stains leaves with intense washes of reds and purples.

Just how bright and varied the fall palette is depends a lot of the weather. Warm, sunny days, followed by cool, but not frosty nights gives the leaves a chance to build up a lot of sugars and trap them within their cells. High sugar levels often results in greater amounts of anthocyanin, yielding more reds and purples, adding to the variety in the forest.

This year’s fall in the north woods has been just the kind we need for a spectacular display and the trees have not disappointed. Every day for the last few weeks, I’ve watched in awe as more and more of the canopy sparkles with colour, filling in the autumn landscape, a spectacular display against the clear blue skies.

Still, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the nights get too cold and the days too short, signalling to the tree that it’s time to lock down for winter. The veins bringing moisture to the leaves close up and the branches seal over, cutting off the leaf’s lifelife. The late October winds howling off the lake will tear the foliage from their bases, sending them fluttering to the forest floor and returning their nutrients back into the soil to feed next year’s crop. However, those days are a little ways away, and in the meantime I plan enjoy nature’s yearly blaze of glory for as long as I can.

Feed Me, Seymour

I have to admit that plants are not the first things that come to mind when I think of the word carnivore. However, after spending a morning mucking about in a peat bog last week, I was reminded that ‘meat-eaters’ can be found in pretty much any kingdom and  like their animal counterparts, carnivorous plants can be as beautiful as they are deadly.

In the boreal forests of Manitoba, pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are probably the most commonly encountered carnivorous plant. If you happen to stumble into the right habitat, they can be downright plentiful. We found dozens of them springing up from the carpet of sphagnum, looking like the bloodied tubes of an expansive green pipe organ.

These plants are truly a wonder of evolutionary design. The pitchers are modified leaves, curled in on themselves and fused to form a vessel that holds rainwater. The fluted edges are boldly pattered to be attractive to insects. However, what an unsuspecting bug doesn’t realize is those leaves are also covered in stiff, slippery downward-pointing hairs. When an insect lands on the rim, they immediately head for the mouth of the pitcher, in search of the nectar promised by the bold colours of the plant. However, the deeper they go, the more difficult it becomes to retreat. The hairs only go one way, drawing their quarry down into their watery doom. The ill-fated arthropod eventually drops into the water and ultimately drowns, its decomposing body providing much-needed nutrients for the plant.

But what would drive the evolution of such a set-up? Most plants are more than capable of feeding themselves, transforming carbon dioxide into energetic sugars through photosynthesis and drawing nutrients from the substrate they’re growing on. For pitcher plants, the big problem is finding enough nitrogen to grow and reproduce. Bogs are cold, acidic places and nitrogen is hard to come by. However, bogs have a lot of insects, flies, mosquitoes and all sorts of critters flitting about, their little nitrogen-filled bodies just there for the taking.

So plants, like pitcher plants and sundews have evolved a way to take advantage of the situation and as a result, thrive in an environment where many organisms could never get a footing and those that do only manage to barely eke out a living.

Although they may be hardy and can go where few vascular plants have gone before, pitcher plants are still vulnerable. Bogs are fragile ecosystems, often taking from decades to millennia to form. Forestry, oil and gas exploration, wetland draining and peat harvesting destroy these habitats, often permanently. The good news, however, is that in part because of just how hard most boreal wetlands are to get to, there are still over 100 million hectares of peat bogs and fens in Canada.

Most of us don’t realize just how important these regions are. These often bleak-looking stretches of greens and browns that wrap around the boreal belt can store on average 3.5 times more carbon per hectare than the forests that surround them. They also hold vast volumes of water, slowing run-off and filtering out pollutants from watersheds. Although Canada’s peatlands are still relatively intact, the world has already lost over 25% of these wetlands to agriculture and harvesting in a number of countries, releasing tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and changing water dynamics. It’s a slippery slope. We’re on the lip of the pitcher plant. If we as a species don’t pull back hard on the reins of our need for carbon and other natural resources, more of these valuable sinks will be lost and we will find ourselves tumbling down into our dark pool.

So, put on your boots and venture out into these wet and wonderful places. Admire the pitcher plants and other unique organisms that call this seemingly desolate place home and remember that just because something’s beautiful doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous and sometimes that which seems dull and ordinary is often extraordinary.

The Trouble with Being Beautiful ….

Although I’m always advocating the value of finding the beauty in the everyday, I’m still swayed by those things that are unarguably beautiful. Lady Slippers are one of those things and Showy Lady Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) top the list.

Showy’s come by their latin name honestly. They truly are the queen of the lady slippers. First-off, they’re huge, reaching up from their mossy bed by almost 2 feet. Each plant is crowned with up to three enormous white and pink blossoms that look alternately like a woman’s shoe or a blushing little dutch girl in her winged bonnet, depending on the angle you’re looking at them.

Regardless of the angle, they are truly impressive plants. They’re also usually pretty rare, being restricted to relatively boggy areas, pushing up amongst the sphagnum moss and horsetails in their quest for pollination.

Because that’s really what all the fuss is about, attracting insects to spread their genetic calling card around. This blushing beauty, however, seems to be bit of a tease, offering little or no nectar as a reward to the flies, beetles and bees that crawl into its modified petals.  One could argue that it’s mostly for insurance anyway. Although they do produce a lot of seeds, thanks to their winged dupes, showys reproduce mainly vegetatively, through runners (also known as rhizomes) sent out through the ground. This is why you usually find them in clumps.

Like most other things that civilization has come to regard as precious, their beauty and rarity have made lady slippers an object of fascination, something to be coveted and collected. Up here in the north woods, we’re lucky to have quite a variety of orchids. These past few weeks, the dryer forest has been dotted with yellow lady slippers, large and small and I’ve been able to find dozens of these stunning pink behemoths of the orchid family up in the boreal wetlands, away from human development.

Still, not all have been left in the wild. In my trips around the cottage subdivision where I live, I’ve spotted a few clumps of showys in people’s yards, caged in with chicken wire to save them from browsing deer, looking like a brilliant bird in a zoo. As nice as it is to have the opportunity to see these guys without having to get ankle deep in water, I can’t help but wonder how many were lost in people’s quest to tame this wild beauty.

You see, lady slippers don’t transplant well and they really don’t like having their flowers picked.  They’re bound to their habitat by a mutualistic relationship with a fungus that twines itself around the plant’s roots and branches out into the ground. It’s this fungus that helps the plant survive, taking up nitrogen from the surroundings and making it into a form that the orchid can use.  Moving the plant damages or even severs this relationship, making it unlikely to survive alone in its new home. For every successful transplant you see, there are usually many more that didn’t make it.

While habitat loss is also a concern, the plant’s stunning beauty could actually be the Showy Lady Slipper’s greatest threat, especially in areas where people can get to the wild plants relatively easily. Like the ibises and other plumed birds that were nearly brought to extinction for their beautiful feathers, misguided gardeners drawn by its colour and fascinating shape could decimate wild orchid populations. Already, this and many other orchid species are listed as threatened all over North America.

Still, I have hope. More and more people are beginning to realize that wild things are better off remaining wild and that the best way to capture and hold beauty in your hand is with a  camera.

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.