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Botany

03/03/21

Welcome to a New Gallery!

When the Museum opens to the public again, our visitors will be in for a pleasant surprise. The very first of our nine galleries, now called the Welcome Gallery, has been completely renovated. The much-loved Bison diorama is still there, but the exhibits surrounding it are all different. Originally built in the 1970’s, this gallery definitely had a dated vibe to it that needed to change. Further, it was no longer doing its job as an effective introduction to the province of Manitoba or to the Museum’s galleries.

The welcome wall introduces visitors to both the province, and the Manitoba Museum.

The role that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples played in the settling and formation of the province of Manitoba is now described in several places in the renovated gallery, including a beautiful new exhibit on treaties. This exhibit was created in cooperation with the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, and features the medals, pipes and pipe bags associated with these agreements. It demonstrates the fact that the Museum is committed to working with Indigenous peoples to accurately tell the history of Manitoba.

A beautiful, new treaty exhibit was set up to the left of the iconic Bison Diorama.

Another prominent component of the gallery is a new wall projection depicting 18,000 years of Manitoba history in two minutes! The Museum’s seven Curators all worked together on this video, which portrays, among other things, melting of ice age glaciers, changes in vegetational communities (i.e. biomes) over time, migration of Indigenous peoples into Manitoba, migration of settlers after confederation with Canada in 1870, and predicted future temperatures due to climate change.

Curators pulled out many candidate specimens and artifacts when deciding what to put in the new gallery introduction case.

The most eye-catching new exhibit is the gallery introduction case. The theme of each of the Museum’s remaining eight galleries are revealed through the iconic objects–animals, plants, fossils, minerals and artifacts–on display. Some galleries feature human history stories such as the fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection Gallery, but four galleries are about Manitoba’s biomes (e.g. Arctic & Subarctic, Boreal Forest, Parklands and Prairies), and feature both natural and human history exhibits. Curators looked deep into the Museum collections to find some of our most intriguing objects to display. Unique colours and icons on the banners associated with each gallery are repeated at their entrances in the Museum, to let people know where they are, and what they will be seeing.

A new case describes each gallery, including the Prairies Gallery, and displays iconic specimens like little bluestem grass, and artifacts from the Museum’s collection.

As a scientist, I was disheartened that the old Orientation Gallery did not highlight the fact that this Museum has scientific collections and does research. The new Welcome Gallery does a better job of explaining this, allowing us to display and depict some of Manitoba’s fascinating wildlife. In particular, the new Discovery Room exhibit, The Museum’s Collection Illuminated: Celebrating 50 Years, highlights specimens and artifacts collected by, or donated to, the Museum. A slide show gives visitors a peak into the lives of the Curators and Collections staff that brought this new gallery to life.

This giant puffball fungus, donated to the Museum many years ago, is now on display in the Discovery Room.

As the lead Curator for the Welcome Gallery renewal, I am thrilled with the look of this space! I hope our visitors will enjoy seeing what we have been busy making during the pandemic.

New introductory panels are now located at the entrance to each gallery to help our visitors know where they are.

01/07/21

Anchoring the Earth

One of the most impressive plant specimens at the Manitoba Museum is a huge, preserved grass that shows the entire root system. I think the reason everybody likes this specimen is that it provides a perspective that no one ever has: what a plant actually looks like under the ground. There was just one problem with that grass: it’s not actually a native species. It’s a Eurasian species called Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) that was brought to Canada and widely planted in the 1930’s. During our planning for the new Prairies Gallery, the Curators strongly felt that visitors needed to see native species of plants when first entering the gallery. The process to collect plants for this exhibit was previously described in “I once caught a plant that was this big”.

The June Grass specimen being excavated.

In addition to the tap-rooted White Prairie-clover (Dalea candida), the display case includes a specimen of Manitoba’s Provincial grass, Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a June Grass (Koeleria macrantha). White Prairie-clover relies heavily on associated microbial organisms to obtain adequate nutrition; mycorrhizal fungi help it obtain water and minerals like phosphorus, while nitrogen-fixing bacteria help it obtain nitrogen. This means that the roots of prairie-clover do not have to be very extensive, as they mainly serve as attachment points for its associated organisms. Big Bluestem is a warm season grass that flowers in late summer when the soil is relatively dry; this is why its root system is so extensive and deep. In contrast, the June Grass is a cool-season species that flowers in June when the soil is still fairly moist; the shallow, densely hairy roots are able to obtain all the resources the plant needs. Thus, this exhibit nicely illustrates the main strategies that plants use to exploit different niches in the soil both in space and time.

Debbie Thompson, installing the White Prairie-clover specimen.

After collecting these plants, the preservation process was out of my hands. Our talented Diorama and Collections Technician, Debbie Thompson, soaked the plants in a preservative for months, then carefully untangled the roots, painted the stems and roots to the correct colour, created false petals and came up with a clever mounting technique along with Bert Valentin, one of our productions staff. For a proper backdrop to the plants, I obtained an image of the correct soil profile from the Manitoba Soil Science Society, a Stockton Loamy Sand.

Last month, the exhibit case and graphics were installed, and our plants were ready to move into their new home. It was an exciting day to see my vision come to life. I hope you all enjoy being greeted by some new plants as you enter the gallery.

Debbie Thompson (left) and a very proud Curator: me!

If you are wondering what happened to that Crested Wheatgrass specimen, it has been relocated to the second half of the gallery, which tells the story of Manitoba’s post-European contact history. It is now located next to a history case on the impact of the Great Depression on Manitobans, correctly interpreted as a species planted in the 1930’s to help stabilize soils that were blowing away due to the drought.

The exhibit case and associated interpretive panel.

12/07/20

Popping Pine Cones and Other Fun Facts About Conifers

I recently read that, thanks to Covid-19, there’s been a run on Christmas trees because so many people are staying home for the holidays this year. In a world that suffers from plant blindness (i.e. an inability to see the trees for the forest), “Christmas trees”, are among the most well-known “species” of plant. Except that “Christmas tree” is not actually A species; it is ANY kind of coniferous (i.e. cone-bearing), evergreen tree that we decorate. So, if you don’t know much about conifers, here are 10 fun facts about these common trees many of us share our homes with once a year.

1. Many different species are used as Christmas trees.
Some of the most popular Christmas tree species in Manitoba are native ones: Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), White Spruce (Picea glauca) and Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea). Other species are non-native, most commonly Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). How to tell them apart? Just remember this little rhyme about the needles of these trees: firs are flat, spruces are stiff, and pines are in pairs.

Balsam Fir is a popular Christmas tree because the needles are not shed as quickly as in spruce trees.

2. Not all conifers are evergreens and not all evergreens are conifers.
The term evergreen just means that the plants’ do not shed all of their leaves in autumn the way deciduous plants do. Being evergreen is advantageous for plants that grow in cold, nutrient-poor soils where organic matter decomposes slowly (i.e. pretty much all of Canada!). Most conifers are evergreens, but Tamarack (Larix laricina) trees are deciduous. Tamaracks can afford to regrow new needles each year because they can reabsorb many of the minerals in them before they turn yellow and fall off. Some flowering plants in nutrient-poor habitats, like Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), are evergreen, with thick, but broad (not needle-like) leaves that stay on all winter.

Bearberry, shown here growing over a rock, is an evergreen shrub that produces white, bell-shaped flowers and red fruits, not cones.

3. In conifers, the females are on top.
Manitoba’s conifers are not like people: they don’t have different genders. Conifers produce both male cones, which produce sperm, and female cones, which produce eggs. The male cones are typically produced on the lower branches and the female cones on the top ones. This positioning helps to prevent self-fertilization because the sperm-containing pollen won’t fall on the trees’ own female cones.

4. Manitoba has popping pines.
To protect Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) seeds from predators like squirrels and birds, their cones are tough and tightly closed (i.e. serotinous). The cones will not open, sometimes for decades, until they are exposed to intense heat, such as that from a forest fire. In fact, shortly after a forest fire, you can hear the sound of Jack Pine cones popping open and releasing their seeds. You can hear this sound too, if you collect closed cones and put them near a bonfire or on top of a radiator.

Jack Pine is a conifer that has adapted to the natural forest fires that periodically occur due to lightning strikes.

5. Conifers can fly.
The seeds of most conifers have a thin “wing” attached to them. These wings help the seeds, which are near the top of the tree, glide some distance away, so that the baby trees do not have to grow in the shade of their parent. Juniper (Juniperus spp.) and yew (Taxus spp.) seeds are contained in fleshy cones (incorrectly called “berries”), which are eaten by birds. Thus, they can also fly, although they will be in the stomach of a bird when they do. Fortunately, the seeds are usually not digested, just the fleshy part. They are usually excreted intact in the birds’ dung.

6. Conifers are always in your house (or ARE your house).
Unless you have a bidet, don’t use any paper products at all, and live in a house made entirely of straw, you have conifers in your house all the time. Paper products like toilet and wall paper, paper towel, newsprint, cardboard and printing paper are all made, at least in part, with “softwood” trees, which are conifers. As well, much of the timber we use to build our houses and furniture comes from conifer trees like pine and spruce. If you eat pesto sauce or drink gin, you are also consuming conifers. Pesto sauce is typically made with pine nuts, and gin is usually flavoured with juniper cones.

7. A conifer is Manitoba’s provincial tree.
Manitoba’s provincial tree is White Spruce (Picea glauca). This is the dominant conifer in North America, growing in every Canadian Province. Their life span is relatively short, about 250-300 years old, in part because spruce forests become more susceptible to wildfires as they age. White Spruce provides much of the habitat for migratory songbirds and small boreal mammals, which eat the insects that live on them, or the seeds of their cones. Crossbills (Loxia spp.) and squirrels are busy eating White Spruce seeds right now, even here in the city.

White Spruce trees grow in upland areas all over Canada’s boreal forests.

8. Conifers are the oldest trees.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) is the worlds’ longest-lived, non-clonal tree species, typically surviving for thousands of years. The oldest individual of this species, found in California, was estimated to be just over 5,000 years old, so it germinated several hundred years before the Egyptians built the first pyramid.

The oldest trees in the world, Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, look just as you would expect an ancient tree to look: gnarled and knotty. From Wikimedia Commons.

9. Conifers are the biggest trees.
A tree named “General Sherman” is the largest tree in the world at 1,487 cubic metres. It is almost 84 metres tall, about the height of a 26-story building, and has a 31-metre circumference at ground level. It is a species of Giant Sequoia (Sequiadendron giganteum), and can be found in Sequoia National Park in California. They make bad Christmas trees, cause who could ever get the star on top?

A Giant Sequoia with people at the base for scale. From Wikimedia Commons.

10. Dinosaurs ate conifers.
Conifers are the oldest seed plants; they evolved about 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous Period. Unlike the earliest land plants, which still needed water to reproduce, conifers did not: their sperm became contained in pollen grains, which could be transported to other plants by the wind instead of water. This enabled conifers to live in relatively dry areas. They became the dominant plants during the “Age of Dinosaurs”: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. So, any plant-eating dinosaurs would probably have eaten conifers. Fortunately, dinosaurs are extinct so they will not eat your Christmas tree.

Wanting more conifer trivia?  Check out this post from the past to learn why people drank conifer “beer”: https://manitobamuseum.ca/drinking-christmas-trees-that-is/

Enjoy a tree-filled holiday!

 

10/21/20

The Dirt on Soil

Soil is sometimes called “dirt”, as if it is something completely devoid of value. But without healthy soil, there would be no food, and without food, humans are doomed. We owe this thin layer of life, a respect far exceeding what we typically show it.

Soil consists, not just of sand, silt and clay, but organic matter from plants, fungi and animals, as well as a diverse community of soil organisms, living in complex communities that we barely understand. Soil organisms play a crucial role in the persistence of life as we know it, and they are unfathomably abundant: there are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on earth. Most importantly, soil organisms help decompose dead organic matter, so that the nutrients in them can be used by living creatures. If this recycling did not happen, all life on land would eventually screech to a halt.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) that can associate with soil fungi (i.e. mycorrhiza), are more drought-tolerant, and yield more seeds. © The Manitoba Museum.

Most people are familiar with above-ground food pyramids: producers (e.g. grass) are eaten by herbivores (e.g. bison), which in turn are eaten by predators (e.g. wolves). What many don’t know is that this same structure also occurs in underground ecosystems. Life in the soil is kind of like the upside-down in the TV show Stranger Things; the same but different, and much darker.

Plants are the producers in the soil, transferring sugar formed by photosynthesis in their leaves to their root systems. Both dead and living roots, and root exudates (i.e. chemicals that leak out of the roots) are consumed by small plant-eaters (i.e. herbivores) like bacteria, fungi, mites and roundworms (i.e. nematodes), as well as larger animals like mice, gophers and voles. These herbivores are eaten by predators (i.e. carnivores) of various sizes. Small predators include protozoans, carnivorous roundworms and mites, springtails, ants, spiders, sowbugs, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms. These small predators may in turn be eaten by larger subterranean predators (i.e. secondary carnivores) like moles and shrews, as well as larger creatures above the ground, like birds and mammals (e.g. coyotes).

Four out of five animals on earth are nematodes or roundworms. This species, Criconomella sp. is a native, root-feeding nematode. © Raf Otfinowski and Victory Coffey.

But it is not just a mite-eats-nematode world: the soil also contains organisms that partner with each other in mutually beneficial relationships: nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi form associations with plant roots that help both species thrive. Soil bacteria and fungi may also help plants by detoxifying harmful chemicals, like pesticides, in the soil.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Rhizobia spp.) can break down the strong triple chemical bonds of N2, the inert gas that forms most of the atmosphere (78%), turning it into ammonia (NH3). These bacteria invade the root hairs of legumes forming nodules. The plant gives sugar and a safe home for the bacteria in exchange for the ammonia, a bio-available form of nitrogen that the plant can use. Other nitrogen-fixing bacteria (e.g. Frankia spp.), associate with shrubs like alders (Alnus spp.).

Legumes, such as this White Prairie-clover (Dalea candida), associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, increasing the fertility of the soil. © The Manitoba Museum.

A second important mutualism is between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi are good at obtaining water and minerals partly because they have a much greater surface area than plant roots (about 50 times as much), and partly because they produce special chemicals that helps them obtain insoluble minerals. The fungi wrap around and penetrate plant roots with their hyphae (fine hair-like structures) so that the organisms can exchange nutrients: sugar from plants to fungi, and minerals and water from fungi to plants. Mycorrhizal fungi are about 100 times more effective at obtaining water than plant roots alone, aiding in drought-tolerance. This association allowed plants to colonize land over 600 million years ago, and even today well over 90% of all plant species need mycorrhiza to grow. Plants are so interconnected with each other and the fungi under ground that scientists have started calling this system “the wood wide web”. For our sake, let’s hope that this system, essential to all life, never crashes.

The hyphae of the Biocolored Deceiver (Laccaria bicolor) fungus, wrap around the roots of Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), helping it get enough minerals from the soil. © Hugues Massicotte

Thanks to Hugues Massicotte (University of Northern British Columbia) for the images of mycorrhiza, and Raf Otfinowski and Victory Coffey (University of Winnipeg) for the nematode image.

09/02/20

Closed for Business

Closed Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) was always a puzzle to me. When I first saw a picture of it in a field guide, I assumed that the photographer had simply taken the picture before the petals fully opened up. It was many years before I finally figured out what this plant’s deal was.

Closed Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) grows in wet prairies, such as those at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Gardenton, MB.

Back in 2004, while doing field work out at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, I had to walk past a few Closed Gentian plants to get to my research plots where I was studying pollinators. Every day I would think to myself, “when are those flowers finally going to open up?” Then one day as I walked past one, the whole plant vibrated. I paused, waiting to see what was going on. Suddenly, one of the fattest bumblebees I’ve ever seen pushed its way out of the flower and flew to another one, pausing briefly to nibble a small hole in the tip before pushing her way in. The proverbial light bulb went off in my head: the closed petals was this gentian’s way of preventing small insects that may be less-effective pollinators, from getting its precious nectar and pollen. Brilliant! I even came across a great video showing this behavior (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDCrQzojP84).

Bumblebee visiting a Closed Gentian. (c) Gerrie Barylski. Used with permission.

Although there are many plants in the tropics that rely on very specific pollinators, this phenomenon is less common in Canada: most plants here rely on a wide range of pollinators-bees, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles-some over a hundred species. However, the only other type of pollinator besides bumblebees that can visit Closed Gentian are hummingbirds, which stick their long bills into the tip of the flower to access the nectar.

This model of Closed Gentian will be in the new Prairies Gallery.

I was so delighted with this plant that, many years ago, I asked our Diorama Artist to create a model of it, complete with a bumblebee butt sticking out, for a temporary exhibit on pollination I was doing. My plan was to eventually put this model in a permanent exhibit. At long last this lovely model will finally be on display in an exhibit on pollination, along with a hovering hummingbird, when the new Prairies Gallery opens up this fall.

07/08/20

Identifying a Ghost Plant

A week ago I posted a blog about a rare plant that I had been searching for in the West Hawk Lake area: climbing fumitory. Since then I’ve had several people ask me how to tell this plant (shown in in the picture above) apart from other similar species. In Manitoba there are only five species in the fumitory family and they are fairly easy to tell apart: two are rare and found in the southeast (climbing fumitory and Dutchman’s breeches), one is a weed from Europe (common fumitory) and the other two are fairly common in open woods and clearings in the boreal forest (corydalis).

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis). From Wikimedia Commons victorgrigas / CC0 .

All the plants in the fumitory family look somewhat similar to the common garden plant known as bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), shown above. I think every child in the prairies has observed the heart-shaped pink and white flowers of this spring-blooming species before. I’ve got several in my yard that were probably planted when the house was built in the 1950’s. The leaves of species in this family are divided and almost fern-like in appearance. The flowers have four petals but they are irregularly shaped; that is, they are not all identical to each other, similar to snapdragons or orchids. The two inner petals are a different shape from the two outer petals. The outer petals may be mirror images of each other (e.g. Dutchman’s breeches, climbing fumitory) or dissimilar (corydalis). Although these plants are often lumped in with the poppy family (Papaveraceae), some sources (i.e. Flora of North America) consider them unique enough to be in their own family, the Fumariaceae.

Pink corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) has pink and yellow flowers and long seed capsules.

Ecologically the plants in this family are poisonous (so no nibbling). Insects, however, enjoy the nectar found in the petal spurs. To get the nectar, long-tongued pollinators have to pry the outer petals apart, in the process rubbing up against the male (stamens) and female (pistil) parts of the flower, resulting in fertilization. However, some shorter-tongued insects have figured out that they can get the nectar just by nibbling a hole in the petal spur. See if you can find any of these cheat holes in the plants that you observe in nature.

Golden corydalis (Corydalis aurea) is a common herb in open areas in the Boreal Forest.

The seeds of the two corydalis species and Dutchman’s breeches have elaiosomes attached to them. These are fatty packets that ants like to eat. Ants pick up the corydalis seeds that pop out of the capsules when ripe, and carry them off to their nests where they chew the elaisomes off, leaving the seed onthe disturbed ground near the ant nest.

Here’s an identification key to the plants of the fumitory family (Fumariaceae) found in Manitoba. To use this key, select the statement that best describes your plant until you arrive at a species name rather than a number.

1. Plants are vines that climb up trees or rocks using tendril like-leaflets; petals almost completely fused together with a spongy texture………………………………………………………………. Climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa)
1. Plants are herbs not vines; petals fused only near the base, not spongy……………………………….…………..2

2. Both outer petals with a spur………………………………………….Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
2. Only one outer petal with a spur……………………………………….………………………………………………………….3

3. Flowers pink; fruit rounded, not splitting open; seeds lacking appendages…………………….………………..
……………………………………………………………………………………….…..Common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis)
3. Flowers yellow or pink with a yellow tip; fruit a long capsule that splits open; seeds with small appendages (elaiosome)…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….…………..…4

4. Petals pink tipped with yellow; seeds to 1 mm diameter………..Pink corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens)
4. Petals yellow; seeds to 2 mm diameter……………………………………..Golden corydalis (Corydalis aurea)

07/03/20

In Search of a Botanical Ghost

Eighty years ago, Manitoba botanist Charles W. Lowe collected a plant from the West Hawk Lake area, not realizing that it would be the last time anyone would collect it in this province again. This June, I embarked upon a journey to see if that elusive plant was still hiding somewhere in Whiteshell Provincial Park.

West Hawk Lake was where the rare climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa) plant was found in 1940.

My scholarly journey commenced when I began working on a revised Flora of Manitoba; a book that will describe all the plants in the province. I searched through old papers, herbarium specimens and websites to compile a preliminary list of species for the province. Many new species had been confirmed or found since the publication of the last Flora of Manitoba in 1957, but there were also a few species that seemed to have disappeared. These plants are considered “historic” species: plants that had definitely been collected here in the past but not again for many decades. Are these species now locally extinct (i.e. extirpated) or are they still hiding in some remote area of the province? I’ve spent the last few years looking for some of them.

This is the only specimen of climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa) in the Museum’s collection; it was grown from seed in a Winnipeg garden. MM 34940

In some cases, mainly in Manitoba’s prairies, the habitats of the historic plants appear to have been destroyed by cultivation or construction activities. In other cases, the historic species’ seem to have been displaced by exotic plant species like smooth brome (Bromus inermis), which were introduced as a forage crop. However, the disappearance of climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa) was a bit of a mystery. My research indicated that it had been collected in the West Hawk Lake area, which is still largely intact. Why then was it seemingly gone?

While searching for more information, I discovered that this species is not common anywhere it occurs in the wild, in part because it is a biennial. That means its seeds germinate and grow a few leaves the first year, producing flowers and fruits only in the second year. Then it dies, remaining in the soil as a seed until its germination is triggered. But what triggers the germination? The references I found note that fires, windstorms and insect outbreaks that open up the forest canopy are likely triggers. But the soil cannot be severely damaged the way it often is with logging so apparently you don’t tend to see it in clearcuts. Plus, it likes rocky, acidic soils that stay consistently moist in places that are not too windy, and that have some trees or cliffs that it can climb up since it is a vine. In short, it appears to be adapted to thrive in very particular types of environments that don’t occur all that often anymore.

I searched for hours along the rocky, rooty Hunt Lake trail where this species may have been collected 80 years ago.

So, this year I decided to visit a recently burned area in the south Whiteshell, as well as the cliffs along Hunt and West Hawk Lake, to see if I could find this ghost species.  I was astounded at the beauty of the lake, which formed after an asteroid hit the earth in this spot about 100 million years ago. While I did find the rocky cliffs and moist soils that this species likes, I did not find the plant.  Some areas were likely too shady to trigger this plant’s germination, while in the burned area, there may not have been any seeds in the seed bank.

A rocky, recently burned area in the park where I searched in vain for climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa).

I began to wonder why Lowe found this species in the 1940’s. Since I couldn’t find any records of a large forest fire in the late 1930’s near West Hawk Lake, I thought that perhaps it was construction of the campgrounds and roads during that time that created a suitable opening in the canopy for this species. Decades of fire suppression, which improved greatly after World War II due to the use of aerial water bombers, have likely prevented the creation of the post-fire habitats in this area that the species needs. So even though humans have not changed this habitat by directly destroying it, we have changed it by altering the natural fire cycles that occurred before Europeans arrived. The presence of so many cottagers in the West Hawk and Falcon Lake areas means that any natural fires that do ignite will likely not be allowed to get anywhere near the recreational areas to protect human lives.

A close relative of climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa), pink corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) grew in the recently burned area.

After so many years without disturbance, any seeds of climbing fumitory that were in the soil seed bank have likely died, and if that has happened, then this species may indeed be extinct in Manitoba. However, if an insect outbreak or windstorm damage occurs in the right spot, all may not be lost.  One thing I was reminded of during my trip is that the boreal forest is vast and, in many places, completely inaccessible to humans.  Climbing fumitory may still be hiding somewhere in this vast forest, waiting for some intrepid individual to stumble across it again.

06/01/20

Getting to Know Manitoba’s Wild Lilies

We share our world with billions of other organisms and they play a crucial role in our survival, providing the ecosystem services that keep us alive: making oxygen for us to breathe, filtering toxins from our water, and providing shade for us and our homes to name a few benefits. With so many cultural events being cancelled this year due to Covid-19, you may be planning on spending some time in nature this summer. Thus, now is an excellent time to learn to identify some of the beautiful wild plants that grow in our province.

Wild lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense) is a common species found on the forest floor.

As part of my Museum work, I have been writing an identification guide to all the vascular plants (i.e. ferns, conifers and flowers) in the province. Unfortunately, it is nowhere close to being done. However, in the interim, I can provide some information on how to identify some of the prettiest plants you will encounter in the prairies and forests of Manitoba: the lilies.

Autumn onion (Allium stellatum) can be distinguished from other wild onions by its pretty pink flowers.

Lilies are actually related to grasses. Both types of plants have leaves that are usually long and thin, typically with parallel veins (as opposed to net-like veins such as you see in a maple leaf). However, lily flowers are animal-pollinated so they have petals and are larger than those of wind-pollinated grasses, which lack petals. The main characteristic of lilies is that they usually have 3-6 floral parts unlike most plants, which have 4-5 floral parts (the dicots). Unlike their other close relatives, the orchids, which also have 3-6 floral parts, the petals of lilies are all the same size and shape; the petals of orchids are all slightly different, giving them an irregular shape like a lady’s-slipper. Irises are similar to lilies in that their petals are all the same shape but their flowers, at least in Manitoba, are all purple or blue (rarely white); most lilies in Manitoba have white flowers, less commonly yellow, pink or orange.

In this dried Museum specimen, you can clearly see the large bulb of this poisonous species, aptly named mountain death camas (Zigadenus elegans). Specimen #35061

There are only five wild lilies that are typically found in sunny, prairie habitats: Wood lily, prairie onion, autumn onion, eastern yellow stargrass and mountain death camas. One of these plants is poisonous. Can you guess which one? The word “death” in the name kind of gives it away, no?

The white flower of nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) dangles below the three-parted leaves.

Lily species that grow in sunny habitats have narrow leaves, to reduce their sun exposure. In contrast, the lilies that grow in forested habitats tend to have wider leaves to better capture the dappled light that occurs on the forest floor. Most of the forest lilies have white flowers (sometimes with invisible ultraviolet (UV) patterns that bees can see), because white is more visible in a dark environment like a forest floor. Fairy-bells, Solomon’s-seal and false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum spp.) are among the most common species in Manitoba. In the southeastern forests you will also find the highly attractive nodding trillium with its leaves in three parts and dangly white flower, and the lovely yellow clintonia.

The pretty flower cluster of yellow clintonia (Clintonia borealis) develops into bluish berries by mid summer.

Below is an identification key to the 21 wild lilies of Manitoba. To use this key, decide which of the paired statements best describes your mystery plant, then go to the number that is after that statement. Continue selecting statements until you arrive at a species name. You may have to use a second key (indicated in brackets after the group common name) to identify the plant to its species. To determine the scientific (Latin) name of your species, go to the list at the very end of this blog. You can double check that you identified the plant correctly by searching for an image and description of the species on the internet. Enjoy hunting for Manitoba’s lovely lilies this summer!

Having floral parts in 3’s is a key character of plants in the lily family like this eastern yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta).

Key to the Lilies of Manitoba

1. Leaves arising from close to the ground or nearly so (basal)……….……………………….…………………2
1. Leaves alternating or in whorls on the upper part of the stem…..……..…………………….…..………….7

2. Fruit a blue berry; leaves wide and thick…………….……………………..…..…………….. Yellow clintonia
2. Fruit not fleshy; leaves narrow and thin …………………….…………………………….………………………….3

3. Flowers bright yellow; ovaries (unripe fruits) densely hairy……….………. Eastern yellow stargrass
3. Flowers not bright yellow; ovaries not hairy…………………………….……………………………….….………4

4. Flower stalks all arising from a single point on the stem (umbel); leaves strongly onion-scented……………………………………………………………………….……. Wild onions (see species key below)
4. Flowers arising from various points along the stem (raceme); not onion-scented…….………..……5

5. Plant arising from a bulb; petals 7-10 mm long………………………..……… Mountain death camas
5. Plant not arising from a bulb; petals less than 5 mm long………………………………..…..…….…………6

6. Stems smooth; seeds lacking appendages; far northern Manitoba………………..…… Small tofieldia
6. Stems covered in sticky hairs; seeds with appendages…………………………..……..….. Sticky tofieldia

7. Leaves in whorls of 3 or more…………………………………………………………..….…….….……………………8
7. Leaves alternating on the stem.………………………………………………………….…….………….……………..9

8. Upper leaves in a whorl of 3; flower white, nodding…………………………..……….… Nodding trillium
8. Upper leaves in whorls of 3 to 11; flowers yellow or orange, erect……………..………….…… Wood lily

9. Flowers at the tip of the stem (terminal), singly, in clusters of 2-4, or on a stalk (raceme).………10
9. Flowers in leaf axils, singly or in clusters of 2-4….…………………………………..…………………………..12

10. Flowers in racemes……………….………………………… False Solomon’s seals (see species key below)
10. Flowers single or in clusters of 2-4 at stem tips……………………………….…..…………………..………..11

11. Flowers 1-2 (3), white; fruit an orange berry………………….…….………………………………… Fairybells
11. Flowers 1-4, yellowish; fruit a capsule…….…………………………… Bellworts (see species key below)

12. Flowers in clusters of 2-4; fruits dark blue berries………..………………………. Giant Solomon’s seal
12. Flowers single; fruits orange to reddish berries……………. Twisted-stalks (see species key below)

Key to the Bellwort (Uvularia) species
1. Leaves wrapping around the stem, finely hairy, not covered with bluish powder; fruit a dry                                      capsule less than 15 mm long………………………………………………..…………..… Large-flowered bellwort
1. Leaves not wrapping the stem, not hairy, covered with bluish powder; fruit a dry capsule over                                    15 mm long…………………………………………………………………………….…..……….. Sessile-leaved bellwort

Star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum) is flowering in many riverbank forests right now.

Key to the False Solomon’s-seal (Maianthemum) species
1. Leaves 2-4; flowers arising from a simple stalk (raceme)……………….………………………………………2
1. Leaves more than 4; flowers arising from a simple or branched stalk (panicle)………………………..3

2. Flowers with 4 petals and 4 stamens; usually 2 flowers arising from a single spot……………………..                            …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. Wild lily-of-the-valley
2. Flowers with 6 petals and 6 stamens; 1 flower per spot………………. 3-leaved False Solomon’s Seal

3. Flowers arising from a dense, branched stalk; flower stalks <1 mm long; ripe berries red………….. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………… Large false Solomon’s Seal
3. Flowers arising from a simple stalk; flower stalks 6-12 mm long; ripe berries black………………… ……………………………………………………………………………………..…… Star-flowered false Solomon’s Seal

Key to the Twisted-stalk (Streptopus) species
1. Leaves strongly clasping, edges smooth or toothed, not hairy; floral stalk strongly jointed and                         bending at an abrupt angle; petals strongly upturned…..……………….. Clasping-leaved twisted-stalk
1. Leaves stalkless or slightly clasping, edges hairy; floral stalk not strongly jointed; petals only                             slightly upturned…………………….……………..……………..………………….. Midwestern rose twisted-stalk

Key to the Wild Onion (Allium) species
1. Leaves egg- to lance-shaped, shrivelling before flowering; fruit a 3-lobed dry capsule… Wild leek
1. Leaves linear, not shrivelling before flowering; fruits a capsule only slightly lobed……………..……2

2. Flower stalks shorter than flowers, leaves round in cross section, hollow……………….. Wild chives
2. Flower stalks equalling or exceeding the flowers; leaves flat or channelled, not hollow………..…..3

3. Bulb covered with net-like fibers; flowers white; stamens not longer than petals..… Prairie onion
3. Bulb not covered with fibers; flowers pink; stamens longer than petals……………… Autumn onion

Common and Scientific Names of Manitoba’s Wild Lilies

-Autumn onion – Allium stellatum Fraser ex Ker Gawl.
-Clasping-leaved twisted-stalk – Streptopus amplexifolius (L.) DC.
-Eastern yellow stargrass – Hypoxis hirsuta (L.) Coville
-Giant Solomon’s seal – Polygonatum biflorum (Walt.) Ell.
-Large false Solomon’s seal – Maianthemum racemosum (L.) Link
-Large-flowered bellwort – Uvularia grandiflora Sm.
-Midwestern rose twisted-stalk – Streptopus lanceolatus (Ait.) Reveal
-Mountain death camas – Zigadenus elegans Pursh
-Nodding trillium – Trillium cernuum L.
-Prairie onion – Allium textile A. Nels. & J.F. Macbr.
-Rough-fruited fairybells – Prosartes trachycarpa S. Wats.
-Sessile-leaved bellwort – Uvularia sessilifolia L.
-Small tofieldia – Tofieldia pusilla (Michx.) Pers.
-Star-flowered false Solomon’s seal – Maianthemum stellatum (L.) Link
-Sticky tofieldia – Triantha glutinosa (Michx.) Baker
-Three-leaved false Solomon’s seal – Maianthemum trifolium (L.) Sloboda.
-Wild chives – Allium schoenoprasum L.
-Wild leek – Allium tricoccum Ait.
-Wild lily-of-the-valley – Maianthemum canadense Desf.
-Wood lily – Lilium philadelphicum L.
-Yellow clintonia – Clintonia borealis (Ait.) Raf.

05/04/20

Beautiful Parasites (and a couple ugly ones too!)

It is pretty well known that plants differ from animals due to their ability to make their own food using just carbon dioxide, water and sunlight through a process called photosynthesis. But some plants are a bit lazy and figured “why should I make my own food like a sucker when I can just steal some from my neighbor?” Thus, the strategy of plant parasitism was born.

The lovely Labrador lousewort (Pedicularis labradorica) typically parasitizes dwarf birch (Betula pumila) shrubs in the boreal forest.

The secret to being a plant parasite is to produce modified roots, called haustoria. Rather than collecting water and minerals from the earth like normal roots, haustoria pierce the roots or stems of other plants and tap into their vascular systems. The haustoria suck up the sap from the parasitized plants, obtaining water, minerals and the product of photosynthesis: sugar. The parasitized plants are weakened but not usually killed, unless stressed for other reasons.

The evolutionary journey to parasitism was not always completed; while some species became full parasites (=holo-parasites), such as dodders (Cuscuta spp.) and dwarf-mistletoes (Arceuthobium spp.), others are only partial parasites (=hemi-parasites). Hemi-parasites still produce green leaves and are capable of photosynthesis, unlike the holo-parasites, which no longer perform any photosynthesis at all. Through their haustoria, hemi-parasites obtain mainly water and minerals from the parasitized plants, which means they can grow in habitats where they might normally be at a competitive disadvantage in terms of their ability to obtain enough soil resources.

Yellow owl-clover (Orthocarpus luteus) is a fairly common plant hemi-parasite in prairies and parklands.

There are many species of hemi-parasites that grow in the wilds of Manitoba but they are not all related. World-wide, parasitism appears to have evolved independently at least 12 times. In this province there are three families that contain parasitic plants: the Morning-Glory, Sandalwood, and Broom-rape families. The Morning-glory family contains the aforementioned dodders; plants that twine up the stems of other plants and steal sugar from them. In Manitoba the entire dodder genus is on the noxious weeds list although none of the species are terribly common. In fact, two species of dodder that typically infect native plants, buttonbush dodder (Cuscuta cephalanthi) and hazel dodder (C. coryli), are considered critically imperilled in Manitoba. Common or swamp dodder (C. gronovii) is slightly more abundant, but not a major weed.

The tiny common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) wraps its stems around those of native plants like stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

The Sandalwood family contains the most common parasites in the province: the holo-parasite dwarf-mistletoe, and the hemi-parasites pale comandra (Comandra umbellata) and false toadflax (Geocaulon lividum). Pale comandra typically grows in dry prairies, parasitizing a wide variety of common plants like asters and roses, while false toadflax is found in our northern forests living off of woody plants like bearberry (Arctostaphylos spp.) or asters.

Like all plant parasites, pale comandra (Comandra umbellata) will not grow in a garden setting unless an appropriate host plant is nearby.

All plants in the Broom-rape family including paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.), owl’s-clover (Orthocarpus luteus), louseworts (Pedicularis spp.), eyebrights (Euphrasia spp.), cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare), and false foxgloves (Agalinus spp.) are hemi-parasites. Many of the broom-rapes have colourful, fragrant, two-lipped flowers that attract and support many pollinators, typically bees and butterflies. In Manitoba, 15 of the plants in this family are considered rare (ranked as critically imperilled, imperilled or vulnerable by the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre). Gattinger’s agalinis (Agalinis gattingeri) and rough agalinis (A. aspera) are both extremely rare and legally protected under the national Species-at-risk Act, 2002 and the provincial Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, 2018. The rare and unusual-looking broomrapes (Orobanche spp.) are holo-parasites on wild asters, possessing no leaves, just coppery-coloured stems and large white, yellow or purplish flowers. Many of these rare parasitic plants grow in our endangered native prairies, dependent on the wild plants that grow there, which are themselves increasingly rare due to exotic species encroachment, habitat loss and climate change. Clearly, being a parasite is not as carefree as it sounds.

The holo-parasite, clustered broom-rape (Orobanche fasciculata) can be found on sandy soils in places like Spruce Woods Provincial Park.

Now that you know they exist, be on the lookout for these, sometimes lovely, sometimes ugly, groups of free-loading plants.

04/09/20

Tree Tales: Canada’s Threatened Trees

Canada’s trees have developed some resistance to native diseases and insect pests. However, climate change has been facilitating more forest damage. For example, the native Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) used to be held in check because it was killed by extremely cold winter temperatures, which occur less frequently now than they used to. Additionally, in the last 125 years, the importation of live trees and untreated wood from other continents has brought in many pests that now threaten not just urban trees, but the integrity and survival of our wild forests as we know them. Likewise, the accidental importation of North American diseases and pests, such as the Pinewood Nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus), threatens forests on other continents. The stories of just three threatened Canadian tree species are recounted below.

American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
In the hardwood forests of eastern Canada and the United States, massive 35-m tall American Chestnut trees once grew. They were an excellent source of timber and produced edible nuts enjoyed by both people and wildlife. In some areas it was estimated that one of every four trees was a chestnut. Then, in 1904, the New York Zoo brought in livestock of Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata) trees that were infected with the fungus known as Chestnut Blight (Cryphonectria parasitica). This fungus damages the cells that transport water and sugar through the trees, eventually causing them to starve to death. The spectacular American Chestnuts had no natural resistance, unlike Asian chestnuts, and the disease quickly spread. By the 1940’s, four billion chestnut trees were dead, and their niches became occupied by other trees such as maples (Acer spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.). American Chestnut still survives as a shrub sprouting from old roots but eventually all individuals succumb to the disease. In Canada, it is endangered and protected by the Species-at-Risk Act, 2002. However, there may be a way to bring this species back using modern technology: trees that appear to be blight-resistant have been bred by inserting a novel gene from wheat.

American Chestnut leaves and fruits from the Manitoba Museum’s collection. MM F-38.

American Elm (Ulmus americana)
The beautiful fan-shaped American Elm tree became one of the most popular urban trees in North America; in the city of Winnipeg alone, there are more than a quarter of a million. These trees are also common in the wild, growing in hardwood and mixedwood forests along with poplars (Populus spp.), ashes (Fraxinus spp.), Manitoba maples (Acer negundo) and spruces (Picea spp.). In 1928 elm wood containing spores of Dutch Elm Disease (DED) (Ophiostoma novo-ulmi), a type of fungus, arrived in untreated wood destined for the furniture industry in Ohio. The fungus was spread by both native and introduced bark beetles, which tunnel under the bark of elm trees. By 1989, the fungus had destroyed 75% of all North American urban trees. DED reached Manitoba in 1975 but summer pruning bans, prompt removal of infected trees, prohibition of elm firewood transportation and treatment with pesticides and a vaccine helped Winnipeg protect its trees. Winnipeg is now the home of the largest surviving urban elm forest. However, unless these efforts are sustained, losses will mount and more trees will die.

The beautiful Pembina Valley is full of wild American Elm and ash trees.

Ash (Fraxinus spp.)
As DED began decimating North America’s elms, many communities began planting Green (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and Black Ash (F. nigra) instead. However, these species are now threatened (Black ash was place on Canada’s endangered species list in 2018) due to the accidental importation of pests from other continents in untreated wood products (sound familiar?). The Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) arrived in Michigan from Asia in the early 1990’s, and was first sighted in Manitoba in 2017. This beetle feeds on the inner bark of a tree, eventually strangling it. Another pest, the Cottony Ash Psyllid (Psyllopsis discrepans), a type of jumping tree louse, was introduced from Europe, arriving in Winnipeg in 2017. The Psyllid damages the leaves of ash trees rather than the bark. This double whammy of pests will likely kill most of Winnipeg’s ash trees in the next decade and forever alter our wild ash forests. The negative impact on wildlife that rely on ash trees for food and shelter will be huge. Fortunately, some individual trees appear to be more resistant to the Emerald Ash Borer, and can help us breed insect-resistant stock.

Manitoba’s Green Ash is being decimated by the introduced Emerald Ash Borer.

How to Save a (Trees’) Life

There are many things we can do to help protect our trees.

1. Slow the Spread
Follow all biosafety protocols regarding importation of any plant or plant product. Buying locally grown trees and nursery plants, and locally produced wood mulch rather than imported products is the safest option. Consider buying and refinishing antique furniture, and using reclaimed or recycled wood for woodworking and construction projects instead of new wood. To be safe, don’t transport ANY firewood; burn local wood only.

2. Reduce the density
Planting monocultures of the same species may look nice (I love those green elm tree “tunnels” as much as the next person), but it is a recipe for disaster. Planting a greater diversity of tree species lets them “socially distance” from one another, reducing the likelihood of disease transmission and catastrophic tree losses within a short period of time. If you lose a tree in your yard, replace it with a different species than the ones surrounding it.

Planting more poplar (Populus spp.) (left) and pine (Pinus spp.) (right) trees will increase the diversity of our urban forests.

 

3. Improve tree health
Remember to prune trees properly when they need it, adhering to any relevant pruning bans. If you don’t know what you’re doing, contact a professional arborist (tree doctor) for help. Regular watering of young or vulnerable trees, and banding trees to reduce cankerworm infestations will also help your trees stay healthy.

4. Support scientific research
Scientific research that was started 43-years ago at an arboretum at Penn State may hold the key to saving ash trees as some appear to have natural resistance and can be used for breeding resistant stock. In Canada, the University of Guelph has been leading a breeding program for DED-resistant American Elm trees. The National Tree Seed Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick stores seeds of Canada’s native trees, which can be used to breed resistant plants. In fact, the public is being encouraged to collect and send them wild ash seeds for their seed bank. But public support for research that doesn’t appear to offer any immediate benefit, is not always forthcoming. Real life is not like a Hollywood movie; scientists can’t conjure up cures to diseases overnight. It takes years of research to come up with solutions to new problems. Let your political representatives know you support publicly-funded science.

Trees provide us with so much-oxygen, shade, beauty, wildlife to admire and even food-that we need to give something back. You can report sick trees in Winnipeg by calling 311, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or the Emerald Ash Borer hotline at 1-866-463-6017. If you lost a tree to disease or the tree-pocalypse storm in October 2019, consider planting a new one as soon as you can. Many Winnipeg greenhouses will even deliver plants right to your door this year. If you would like to see a tree planted on a city-owned boulevard or park, you can ask the city of Winnipeg to plant one.  Remember the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. Enjoy your neighborhood trees this spring!

Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.