Monday, July 26, 2010

Idaho Vacation Part 2: The Weird Flowers of the Lochsa Valley

20 years ago a girlfriend and I quit our jobs in Massachusetts and spent the summer traveling around the Western US and Canada looking for the best place to live.

Tangent: Leading up to the trip, we did all sorts of research, reading stuff like Places Rated Almanac and just about every “Best Places to Live” article we could get our hands on. Even today, 20 years later, I always end up clicking/browsing links to those “best Places” articles, even though I can’t stand ~99% of them. Here are my 2 big complaints:

First, most of them really go out of their way to be geographically diverse, like the editors are suiting around and saying, “OK, so we got Eugene, OR, Burlington, VT and Santa Fe, NM. We need something from the Midwest. How about Pierre, South Dakota?” So there are always like 3 or 4 places in the middle of BF nowhere and you’re like WTF? Is some poor sap really going to read this and pick up and move to freaking Pierre??

Second, they love to include outdoor towns like Bend, Oregon or Ketchum, Idaho, or Telluride, Colorado, where the 2 career choices are a) Destitute Ski Bum/Stoner/Espresso Bar Barista or b) Freaking Bazillionaire Who Buys $5M Second Homes. But the for remaining ~9X% of us who work for actual companies and have to spend less than $5M on a home, these aren’t even “Places to Live”, much less “Best Places to Live.”

And third (OK so I guess I have 3 complaints, not 2) every one of these articles includes Portland, Oregon. OK, we get it already- Portland’s a great place to live- it’s affordable, has real jobs and plenty of bike paths and organic markets and homeless shelters to assuage our Liberal Guilt. How about these articles just say, “Hey, move to Oregon already- it’s probably way better than whatever dump you live in…”

Later in the trip, we crossed back into the US from Canada, and zig-zagged our way South down the Idaho Panhandle. In doing so, we found ourselves- largely by accident- camped along the Lochsa River. Over a couple of days we camped in what I remember as being one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever seen and hiked to the loveliest hot springs I’ve ever visited. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to get back up to the Lochsa.

But the Lochsa isn’t particularly convenient to the places I’ve lived since, and years have stretched into decades. Finally this year we planned a vacation where we could reach it. But as we drove North I was apprehensive. Sometimes places we remember so fondly for so long aren’t quite what we remember. What if it were not-so-great, and I’d dragged the family all this way North*, instead of staying around Stanley a few more days?

*The drive from Stanley to Lolo Pass takes the better part of a day. Even though they’re not all that far apart as the crow flies, central Idaho is dominated by the massive, road-less, Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River Of No Return wilderness areas, necessitating circuitous, indirect routes between the Northern and Southern portions of the state. Several hours into the drive, as we inched our way through the endless road construction in Montana’s Bitteroot Valley, I heard a text beep through on my phone. Assuming it was a work-related thing, I ignored it. An hour or so later I checked my texts when we stopped at Lolo Pass. It was from AW, who, while sitting next to me at the time, had texted, “where the f**k are going??”

IMG_6350 I needn’t have worried. The forests of the Lochsa, and the hot springs we hiked to, were every bit as wonderful and lovely as I remembered. And upon our arrival, now knowing a bit about Western forests, I realized why: The Lochsa Valley is a stunning Eastward extension of the Columbian Forest.

I explained the Columbian Forest last summer when we visited Glacier National Park, and you can check out that post for the full story, but the quickie summary is that in parts of Northern Idaho, Western Montana, Southern BC & Alberta, the Northwest storm tracks carry enough precipitation far enough inland to create a forest that is in many ways more Pac-Northwest than Rocky Mountains in species and character.

CFForestMap4 Along the Lochsa, we camped and hiked amongst Western Red Cedars, Western Hemlocks, Western White Pines and Grand Firs, in addition to Lodgepoles, Douglas Firs and Ponderosas. It was reminiscent of our hike to Avalanche Lake, but extended for miles and miles.

IMG_6369 Which brings me to he first really weird* thing about Missoula, Montana, the closest sizeable “city”. Imagine if you lived in Salt Lake, and the Wasatch was there and all that, but if you drove up over Parley Summit, or OK, maybe a little further- like to Kamas- that all of a sudden, the forest and the vegetation suddenly switch and be totally different, like something from Western Washington or Oregon. Wouldn’t that be totally freaky? Well, that’s exactly the deal with Missoula. You scoot around, hiking or biking in the hills around town and it’s more or less standard Rocky Mountain stuff (with a few extras, like Western Larch higher up.) IMG_6446 But you drive just 35-40 minutes Southwest over Lolo Pass (pic left), and it’s like you pass into a whole other state. Well, OK that’s a bad example, because you actually do drive into another state- the pass sits on the border between Montana and Idaho. But the point is that for most of us in the Intermountain West, if we want to stroll amongst wet, damp, Northwesty-style Cedar-Hemlock forest, we have to drive or fly for several hundred miles. In Missoula, it’s just 40 minutes over the hill.

*Actually, the really weird thing about Missoula is that Colin Meloy, lead singer/songwriter for the Decemberists, is from there. I know I shouldn’t be judgmental, but it throws me for a loop that the mind behind this rather cosmopolitan-sounding band, who sings of sailing ships to South Australia , Greek nymphs and French Legionnaires, hails from some hick town in Western Montana. (OK, yes, I know he’s actually from Helena, and just went to school in Missoula, but really that just kind of emphasizes my point…) Yes, I know Missoula is cosmopolitan for Montana, but…

Something I’ve always thought to do when passing through Missoula is spend a few hours locating the various spots mentioned in the “Apology Song”, like the Orange Street Food Farm and the French Town Pond, and… well I guess it’s just 2 places really. But I never get around to it.

Over the next 2 days, from our campsite-base on the Lochsa, we hiked and explored through forests, along creeks, and to hot springs. The trees were lovely, as I knew from last summer up in Glacier. But as I paid more attention, I noticed that practically everything was different, and the Lochsa Valley was filled with all sorts of things completely absent on the other side of the hill, including several of the most interesting and unusual wildflowers I’ve yet come across.

Weird Flower #1 – Stamens as Petals

IMG_6422 Framing the entrance to our campsite were stands of this bloom, with its distinctive green center and super-narrow white petals. It’s False Bugbane, Trautvetteria caroliniensis, (pic left) and it’s a great example of yet another way to be a flower.

Side Note: We camped at White Sands Campground, which was our favorite of the several upper Lochsa campgrounds. It’s small, set about a mile away from the highway, and the sites (7 of them, all with river access) are too small to accommodate large RVs. Here’s a quick clip of the river from our campsite at dusk.

Jerry Johnson CG was our least favorite- treeless and hot, in full view of the highway. Wendover was our second favorite, followed by Whitehouse. Powell was also a nice campground, but dominated by obscenely-sized RVs.

False Bugbane is a member of Ranunculuceae, the Buttercup family, and you may notice the strong resemblance of the green, ovule-packed center to that of Utah Buttercup which we saw back in early June up on Flying Dog. But the narrow, visually-striking “petals” are something else entirely- they’re stamens. False Bugbane has no petals, but the stamens have assumed the function of petals, presumably visually attracting pollinators and bearing pollen-filled anthers; this guy’s stamens do double-duty.

Extra Detail: False Bugbane occurs in both Western and Eastern North America (but not in between.) In the East it’s called Carolina Bugbane. The name comes from it’s resemblance and structural similarities to- yes, that’s right- the actual real Bugbane, flowers of the genus Actaea, another member of the Buttercup family, a plant sometimes known as Baneberry. Acatea is full of cardiogenic toxins which can cause fast and serious problems if ingested. The berries are the most poisonous part of the plant (hence the name) and have killed people- especially children- who’ve eaten them. Actaea is closely related to Aconitum, the genus of our old, deadly-toxic-but-beautiful friend from last summer, Western Monkshood.

False Bugbane Closeup False Bugbane does have sepals however, 4 of them, white, which you can see highlighted in the photo below. As new flowers prepare to bloom, the stamens are completely enclosed in a sphere formed by the 4 close sepals. As they open, they liberate the much-longer stamens, which quickly eclipse them.

IMG_6376 The next morning we hiked up to Jerry Johnson hot springs, an easy hike through cathedral-like groves of Western Red Cedar, the sunlight gently filtering down to the open forest floor. The hot springs are probably the nicest I’ve visited anywhere- just as wonderful as I remembered.

Extra Detail: I explained how hot springs work in this post, which you can check out if you’re interested. IMG_6370There are several hot springs along side draws off the Lochsa, and we hiked to another- Weir Creek- the next day. Though many of the hot springs are worth visiting, Jerry Johnson- although the most popular- is probably also the best, not just for ease of access, but because the use of the area is more closely-regulated- no use after dark, no camping- which keeps trash, graffiti and abuse down to a minimum.

Weird Flower #2 – Leaves as Petals

Bunchberry3 The forest floor alongside the trail, though relatively open, supported a number of lovely blooms. Particularly interesting was this one, Bunchberry, Cornus Canadensis(pic left).

DISCLAIMER: The Bunchberry photos in this post aren’t mine*. Though I saw several blooming patches alongside the trail, all were slightly post-peak, and I kept thinking, “Oh not yet, I’ll see a better one…” which of course I never did. The photos used came from here and here.

*Lame as my photos are, they’re a (admittedly odd) point of pride for me in this whole project, the point of which isn’t just to blog about cool stuff, but to blog (and therefore learn about) the cool stuff in I come across in my life..

Bunchberry is a low forb, growing only to about 6 or 8 inches in height. But the flowers and leaves are basically the same as you might have seen on trees, specifically Sign CaptionDogwoods (family = Cornaceae.) Bunchberry is basically a teeny-shrub-sized Dogwood. But that’s not the really interesting thing about it. No, the really interesting thing about bunchberry- actually the two really interesting things- both have to do with its flowers.

Bunchberry is another flower where things are not quite what they seem. At first glance it’s a white, 4-petaled flower. But when you get down and look at it closely, you’ll notice 2 things. First, the “petals” are of very similar shape and form to the green leaves underneath. That’s because they’re not petals; they’re leaves. They second thing you’ll notice is that the little “dots” comprising the center of the “flower” are actually each little miniature flowers themselves.

Bunchberry Caption So what you’re looking at in a Bunchberry bloom isn’t a flower, but rather a “bunch” of very tiny flowers framed by 4 specially-adapted, petal-like leaves. The leaves, BTW are partially persistent (evergreen); some number endure throughout the winter. Bunchberry2 Come late summer/early Fall, the Bunchberry “flower”’s true nature is revealed as the fertilized micro-flowers each develop into their own berry, so that a single, visible, macro- “flower” appears to develop into a bunch of berries (pic right, nope not mine either), giving the plant its common name. Also BTW, the berries are edible, though each contains a large, crunchy seed.

But the teensy-miniature “micro-flowers” of the Bunchberry blossom are fascinating in their own right- they “explode”.

Each little flower has elastic petals with springy filaments cocked underneath. Attached to these filaments are tint containers holding pollen. When a visiting insect (bee, moth fly) alights on one of the petals, it flips backward, releasing the filaments, and ejecting the pollen, all within half a millisecond, making this one of the fastest known instances of motion by any plant*.

*To get it on film requires filming at ~10,000 frames/second. Here’s a link to an awesome video of a Bunchberry flower exploding.

False Bugbane and Bunchberry are both fascinating in that they demonstrate fundamentally different architectures and approaches to being a flower, in each case leverage alternative anatomical structures to serve the function of petals in signaling pollinators. But the third Lochsa flower in this post is weirder still.

Weird Flower #3 – No Chlorophyll

IMG_6380 On the hike back, I caught sight of a stand of low (maybe 1’ high) pinkish-reddish stalks in the shade of a Cedar grove. My heart quickened with that fun, familiar sensation of finally seeing something in the real world that I’ve seen before only in guidebooks- Pinedrops!

Pinedrop, Pterospora andromedeae, is a weird, fascinating plant. It’s a member of the Heath Family*, Ericaceae. It’s myco-heterotrophic, meaning that it’s dependent on a fungal partner for survival. Pinedrop isn’t green because it isn’t photosynthetic; it obtains its nutrients via its fungal partners.

*I noticed that its downward-pointing, bell-shaped flowers are vaguely structurally similar to those of Manzanita, another Heath family member we’ve looked at in passing. (Though I realize now I’ve never done a proper post on it, which I really ought to correct, seeing as it’s so common in mainly of the places I frequent.)

Extra Detail: P. andromedeae does contain trace amounts of chlorophyll, but at a level of something like one-millionth that of most photosynthetic plants, give or take an order of magnitude. It’s believed that this trace chlorophyll is a relict of its photosynthetic ancestry, as are the scattered scales along its stalks, thought to be vestigial leaves.

Pinedrop Expand-O Many of the details of the nature of the relationship between P. andromedeae and its fungal partners are still unclear. In fact, much about this plant is unclear. We don’t know for instance, what pollinates it (though the shape of the flowers suggests Bumblebees.) We don’t know whether it’s perennial, or long-term monocarpic. (A monocarpic plant is one that flowers, seeds and then dies.) We don’t know how often (which years) it blooms. We don’t even know for sure whether or not it reproduces vegetatively via root-cloning, which sounds like an easy enough thing to check out, but as will see in a moment, is a bit of a, er, “tangle” in the case of Pinedrop.

IMG_6387So. What do we know about Pinedrop? First and foremost, we know that it only exists in the company of one of several species of fungus of the genus Rhizopogon. A Pinedrop seed will only germinate in soil where Rhizopogon already is growing. Without Rhizopogon, a Pinedrop seed will never, ever (so far as is known) germinate. But what’s fascinating about this requirement is that the seed does not have to be in contact with the fungal hyphae*; the fungus just has to be in the soil close by**, which implies that some as yet undiscovered compound or chemical produced by or associated with the fungus acts as the germination-trigger.

*See this post and this post for basic info on fungus and its structure.

**Exactly how close I wasn’t able to find out for this post.

Extra Detail: There’s currently only one accepted species of Pinedrop. But there’s some evidence that there are distinct lineages of Pinedrops, each associated with only a single species- of subset of species- of Rhizopogon. In Western North America it may be that there two lineages of Pinedrops. In the East, things appear to be more complicated*.

*Complicating things further, some Pinedrop seeds have germinated in the lab in response to Rhizopogon species they’re not associated with in the wild.

Twins Pinedrops cut But the fungus doesn’t just stimulate the plant; it appears that the plant may also stimulate the fungus. When a Pinedrop seed does germinate, the fungus rapidly grows around the roots, soon completely covering them in hyphae, such that the roots of the plant hardly come into direct contact with the soil. Pinedrops occur in stands of fewer than a dozen stalks to over 500, but underground beneath the stalks is a tangled mess of roots and hyphae such that botanists have been unable to tell which/whether stalks are connected to one another, and whether or not a given stand is a clone. (Genetic analysis could resolve the issue. To my knowledge, as of 2002 no such analysis had been conducted.)

So the fungus encases the roots, and the plant gets its nutrients via the fungus. Is it getting them from the fungus, or through the fungus? Here’s where things get really interesting.

Rhizopogon is a mycorrhizal fungus, which we looked at previously and have a mutualistic relationship with many trees and shrubs, including Pines and Oaks. The hyphae of these fungi serve as virtual extensions of root networks, allowing the plant to access water over a much greater area than it could do with roots alone. The fungi in turn feed off of carbohydrates manufactured by photosynthesis and delivered to the roots via the plant’s vascular system. A Rhizopogon “occurrence”* is connected to the root network of a tree, specifically a Pinaceae, such as Pine or Fir.

Myco-pinedrop So the Pinedrop isn’t just connected to the fungus; it’s connected- via the fungus- to the tree. Research with radiotracing** back in the 1960s showed between trees and fungally connected Dutchman’s Pipe, Monotropa hypopithys, another non-chlorophyllous plant that is closely-related to Pinedrop, showed that material does move via these fungal networks from tree to myco-heterotroph.

*I can’t really say “body” as we discussed in this post.

**Using a radioisotope to track the movement of a substance through a natural systems (cells, tissues).

So it’s not clear what Pinedrop is taking from the tree, what it’s taking from the fungus, or what, if anything, the fungus is getting out of the deal. Pinedrop is a weird and fascinating plant with a biology and lifecycle that still leaves much to be discovered.

Extra Detail: Pinedrop also occurs in the Northeast, though much less commonly, and in a patchier distribution, from Wisconsin to the maritime provinces. In New England it occurs in just a couple of isolated locations, though historic records indicate that it was previously more widespread. There seems to be some possible correlation in the East with it range and areas that were glaciated during the most recent ice age. I haven’t found any reference to a similar glacial-distribution I the West, but I know that the floor of the Lochsa Valley- where we encountered the plant- was ice-free during the Wisconsin Glaciation.

IMG_6395 The Lochsa Valley features many other plants, such as St. Johns Wort and Ginger, that are absent on the other side of the pass. I could probably spend a summer in the valley just blogging about the wonderful things growing there. But vacation was running out, and after 2 days in the valley we packed up and headed back over the pass to Missoula.

Bonus Detail: There’s actually, according to sources I’ve read, and a helpful ranger in the Orofino office, an even better, more fantastic, more Northwesty-like example of Columbian Forest in the Idaho Panhandle, the Aquarius Natural Research Area, which lies to the Northwest of the Lochsa and North of Orofino, and which was completely unknown to botanists before the late 1960s. I’d hoped to visit the area this year, but won’t make it there before next summer, by which time I plan to have completed this project. If you find yourself in or near the Panhandle, contact the Orofino USFS office for info.

Next Up: The Second Weird Thing About Missoula.

Note About Sources: Much of the Pinedrop info for this post came from the New England Plant Conservation Program’s Conservation and Research Plan for Pterospora andromedea. Much of the Bunchberry info came from the helpful website In The Garden of Paghat the Ratgirl*. A helpful source for False Bugbane was

*Hey, I didn't name it. Or her.


KanyonKris said...

A good post of strange and fascinating plants. Loved the video of the bunchberry exploding. And Pinedrop is just plain weird.

Anonymous said...

While I didn't take a summer to travel, I kind of did the same thing to find a place to live, using "Best Places Rated" and other ratings sources. I narrowed it down to two places and then traveled to those places (Seattle and Denver), ultimately picking Ft Collins, north of Denver. Of course, it seems a lot of those rating sources have headquarters in the places they pick, such as Portland, Boulder, etc. and may be biased.

The Pinedrop is fascinating! I will keep my eye out for them.

mtb w

Anonymous said...

This is way off topic but I think it has been brought up in an older post (or maybe in the comments) about how many other earthlike planets exist.

Well, an article on cnn today says that about 150 earthlike planets have been discovered so far and it is estimated that there are 100 million such planets with similar earthlike conditions.

mtb w

KB said...

You know way more about this than I do but let me just say that I think that you might have seen Spotted Coralroot (Corralothiza maculata) rather than pine drops. My reason for thinking that is that we have both on our property, and the photo that you showed looks exactly like the Coralroot after it has blossomed and formed seed pods. Pinedrops never form sacs like I see in your photo.

Of course, I could have been wrong about this for years...

I visited Stanley Idaho once, many years ago, when I did a 10 day stage race called the Ore Ida Women's Challenge (later called the Hewlett Packard Women's Challenge). Big mountain days to get there and leave there plus a time trial out and back from Stanley (and I was sea level adapted... so it was tough)! Your post brought back a great memory!

dining room tables said...

I read the first part of you Idaho vacation. It is a great post. I was waiting for this part 2. I find it more interesting than the first part. I love those wild and weird flowers.

Watcher said...

mtb w- cool article, thanks for the link. BTW, Ft. Collins is a very fine place to wind up. Good choice.

KB- No, I think you’re right and I’m wrong. I think it was the (post-bloom) coralroot and in my eagerness I saw pinedrops, the down-hanging pods appearing as early heath-type blooms. I should have paid more attention to the whispy filaments at the ends, which I think now were the post-bloom orchid floral remnants. Thanks for the catch (I feel a correction post coming on!)

On the plus side, the coralroot story is very much in line with the pinedrop story: a non-chlorophyllous myco-heterotroph associated with a single fungal family- in this case Russulaceae.

But the downside- and where I’m kicking myself- is that I missed a golden opportunity to blog about orchids. 2+ years at this project, and I still haven’t blogged about the 2nd largest family of flowering plants. And then I miss the opportunity handed to me on a platter- argh! (Such are the frustrations of the amateur botanist-blogger, I guess…)

Dining Room Tables. Spam in my comments is just getting weirder and weirder. Real estate, vacation rentals and flower delivery I understood, and the Asian porn sites were at least good for a giggle. But furniture-spam?

I’m having to spend a few minutes each day cleaning up comment-spam. If any blogging-readers have suggestions on how to handle (short of moderation) I’d welcome any input. Thanks.

Watcher said...

A quick follow-up: One of today's featured stories on Yahoo is, that's right, a "10 Best Places" article, and yes, Portland's on the list. Substitute Lansing for Pierre, and you've got my tangent-example...

Lucy said...

Another great post. Pinedrop/Coralroot are fascinating and False Bugbane is one of the coolest looking flowers ever.

I used to live a half block away from Orange Street Food Farm. (Very convenient for late night beer runs.) It was similar to the 9th and 9th Smiths in SLC in that it was a Portal through which you can get a glimpse of the counter culture of the city. Last time I was back, it was still the same.

In a couple of your posts in the last few of months, you have hinted that this blogging project is coming to an end. That makes me very sad.

Watcher said...

Jube- don't be sad, plenty of posts ahead. I'm tentatively targeting a wrap-up around late winter/early spring.