Last week I spent some time looking for rare and under-collected plants in the “Turtle Mountains” of Manitoba. First off let me say that I think the term “Manitoba mountain” needs its own definition in the dictionary. To most people the word “mountain” conjures up images of snow-capped peaks and sure-footed Mountain Goats clambering up rocky screes. Climbing a mountain is to risk life itself due to treacherous terrain, exposure to harsh weather and utter physical exhaustion. In contrast, climbing a “Manitoba mountain” is to risk breaking out in a light sweat, if it’s a hot day-a really hot one. Now please don’t get me wrong, I love the Turtle Mountains. I just don’t think they should be called “mountains”. But I suppose perspective is everything and the people who named them were likely so tired of the monotony of the Red River Plain that something that you could see rising up slightly in the distance was good enough to be called a “mountain”.
Before I reached the “Turtle Mountains” south of Boissevain, I had passed another mountain that isn’t really a mountain: Mount Nebo. Named after Mount Nebo in the Holy Land, it has a similar hump-like shape. Just southwest of Miami, Mount Nebo is part of the Manitoba escarpment, the ancient shore of glacial Lake Aggasiz. I was interested in this feature because there is exposed Cretaceous shale there. Such material is where a rare plant (e.g. Eveningstar or Mentzelia decapetala) that historically occurred in Manitoba likes to grow. Unfortunately, I was not able to find this species here, nor at one of the sites where it was collected decades ago near Boissevain. Sadly, it is likely extirpated in the province (i.e. not found here but present elsewhere in Canada).
In Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, I hiked several trails searching for rare sedges. I was also interested in seeing if the brome (Bromus) and wild rye (Elymus) grasses that I was searching for in the Otterburne area in June might occur here instead. Jackpot! I discovered that the brome and wild rye grasses I was looking for are present in the park, likely because human disturbances that favour non-native grasses are minimal here. I may have found some of the rare sedges, although I won’t know for sure until my plants are completely processed here at the Museum as they have to be thoroughly dried, and then frozen for pest control purposes before I can look at them closely.
While I was in the area, I decided to search for rare plants along the Turtle’s Back trail in William Lake Provincial Park, a small park adjacent to Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. At the summit (84 m above nearby William Lake), I discovered that this area was visited by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years as it is the highest point of land for many kilometers, providing an excellent view of the area around it. It was humbling to know that in climbing this peak, I was following in the footsteps of First Nations from long ago, and those who still visit here today.
For the last 13 years I have spent part of my summer studying beautiful plants; plants with big displays of nice-smelling flowers. The reason I was studying them was because I was interested in learning which insects like to visit them for their nectar and pollen. However, this year I realized that for too long I have been neglecting the ugly plants; you know the ones that we step on without a care.
So what are these ugly plants and why are they so unattractive? Most of them are grasses, sedges and rushes but some are aquatic plants--the ones that tickle your legs when you go for a swim in a lake. Although they comprise only about a quarter of all plant species in Manitoba, they make up a much greater percentage of the total plant biomass; grasslands are named after grasses for a reason after all. These plant species are relatively unattractive because they are typically wind-pollinated. That means the wind blows the pollen off of one flower and onto the pollen catchers (stigmas) of another plant, resulting in fertilization of that plant’s eggs. Large petals would just get in the way of this process and be a waste of resources to produce, so most wind-pollinated plants have no petals at all or very tiny ones. The flowers of wind-pollinated plants may consist of just stamens (i.e. pollen-producing structures) and/or pistils (i.e. egg-producing structures). However, some plants, like grasses, have highly modified upper leaves (glumes, lemmas and paleas) to protect the growing seeds. The flowers of some wind-pollinated plants are so tiny that you can only see their details under a microscope.
So why am I studying them? Well, we must remember to not confuse appearance with ecological importance. Although ugly plants aren’t always particularly nice to look at, they play extremely important roles in the functioning of ecosystems. Grasses with their enormous root systems, remove tremendous quantities of carbon from the air and lock it underground in the form of soil organic matter. Unlike the carbon in trees, this soil carbon will not burn up in a wildfire. Grasses also provide livestock and wild animals with an abundant source of food. In wetland habitats, the dense roots of grasses, sedges and rushes filter the water, removing contaminants and nutrients like phosphorus, which would otherwise cause algal blooms in our lakes.
Unfortunately, some of these plants are in trouble. While searching for several historically collected grasses, Wiegand’s Wild Rye (Elymus wiegandii) and Hairy Woodland Brome (Bromus pubescens) in southern Manitoba this June, I was upset to realize that the habitats where these plants once occurred have been completely taken over by weedy Eurasian species like Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis) and Quack Grass (Elymus repens). These aggressive, invasive species have benefitted from the soil disturbances associated with human activity and have been able to spread into native grasslands and woodlands, displacing pretty much everything else. I will continue my search for these elusive species during my next field trip further north in the hopes that I will still find them somewhere in the province.
I was watching an old episode of “The Big Bang Theory” and Sheldon asked Penny what her favorite fruit was. Penny said “strawberries” to which Sheldon replied “technically NOT a fruit”. My daughter turned to me and asked “is that true” and I said “yes, sort of.” Let me explain why.
Plants have sex. The evidence of their many dalliances lands on our lawns and patio furniture in the form of pollen in the spring and later on in the year as spores, seeds and fruits. What’s the difference between these structures? Well, pollen is like sperm in a tiny ping pong ball, a spore is like a naked baby, a seed is like a naked baby with a bottle and a fruit is like a baby with a bottle wearing clothes (or sometimes even driving a vehicle). So at this point you’re probably thinking “eeww, I've touched that stuff” but let’s cut plants some slack cause if they didn’t have sex, they’d go extinct and that would be bad for us given that we can’t photosynthesize!
Spore-producing plants, including mosses and ferns, are terrible parents: they just abandon their children to the whims of fate with nothing to eat and not a stitch on their backs! Cone-bearing plants (=gymnosperms) like spruces, pines, and junipers, are better parents as they provide their babies with something to eat. Giving their babies a source of food enables these plants to grow in drier, less fertile habitats than spore-producing plants can. However, as their babies are “naked” with no protective covering, they are vulnerable to thieves that want to steal their “bottle”: animals!
Flowering plants (=angiosperms) include most of the plants we are familiar with: grains, fruit trees and yes, strawberries! These species don’t let their children go out without a snack and a coat on. However, not all fruits are fleshy and edible as we are accustomed to think. Nuts are actually a type of fruit with a hard shell to protect the baby from hungry animals, kind of like a tank. Grasses give their babies clothing that sticks to their bodies and won’t come off. Maple trees give their kids hang gliders to help them soar away from their parent on the wind!
There are a variety of fleshy fruits as well. A berry is a multi-seeded fruit that includes some plants that we call berries, like blueberries and Saskatoon berries, but also some that we don’t think of as berries, like grapes and tomatoes. Raspberries and blackberries on the other hand, are not true berries, they are aggregate fruits: basically a bunch of tiny fruits clustered together on the enlarged tip of the flower stalk. Stone fruits have a single, hard seed (=drupe) inside; they include peaches, plums and cherries. Citrus fruits are berries with a tough, leathery rind called a hesperidium. These fruits, according to Sheldon are “true” fruits.
Many of the others things we call fruits actually consist of both the fruit AND parts of the flower petals. The fleshy part of apples and pears (=pome) that we eat is not actually the fruit; those are enlarged fleshy petals. Only the “core” of an apple is actually the fruit. The fleshy part of a strawberry is actually formed from the enlarged base of the flower stalk called a receptacle. Each of the “seeds” on the outside of a strawberry are actually one-seeded fruits with a thin, dry covering called an achene. So when you eat a strawberry you ARE eating the fruits of the plant, but it isn’t the part you think it is. For this reason, botanists call these types of fruits “accessory” fruits. Regardless of what part you eat though, there is one thing that is indisputable: fruits are one of the best things you can put into your body. Enjoy strawberry season everyone!
Water-lilies (Nymphaea spp.) have the largest flowers of all Manitoba plants. Unfortunately, because they grow in deep water, the only time you can usually see these lovely flowers close up is when you are in a boat. For this reason, botanists who specialize in water-lilies are a unique breed because they spend a lot of time jumping into lakes and rivers to get good specimens. The distribution of water-lilies in Manitoba is poorly known due to the huge number of lakes and rivers we have here, as well as their inaccessibility. At the Manitoba Museum there are only 64 specimens of water-lilies of any kind in our collection.
Manitoba has four water-lily species, three of which are thought to be rare due to the limited number of specimens in Canada’s herbaria. Images and descriptions of each species, in order of decreasing size, is written below to help you identify them as you explore our province this summer.
Fragrant Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata)
This rare species, found only in southeastern Manitoba, has the largest flowers of all our water lilies: 6 to 19 cm across with 17-43 petals. The leaves are also quite large: about 10-40 cm in diameter. The innermost floral parts (the carpels) are bright yellow in colour and 3-10 mm long. The best place to see this species is in Lily Pond Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park when it flowers in July.
Lori’s Water-lily (Nymphaea loriana)
This species is rare, endemic to Canada, and has only been found north of Lake Winnipeg in clean, clear (not cloudy or tannic) water, and in eastern Saskatchewan. The flowers are slightly smaller than that of Fragrant Water-lily: 7.5-10 cm in diameter with 8-21 petals. The innermost floral parts (the carpels) are deep yellow in colour (kind of like the yolk from a free-range egg) and only 2-3 mm long. The leaves are 8-21 cm in diameter and green underneath and on top.
The picture below compares the leaf undersides of Lori's, Dwarf and Pygmy Water-lilies. Note the differences in both size and colour of the the leaf undersides.
Dwarf Water-lily (Nymphaea leibergii)
This is the most common species in Manitoba, occurring in ponds, lakes and quiet streams throughout our southern Boreal Forest. The flowers are small, about 3-7.5 cm in diameter with 8-17 petals. The carpels are pale yellow but only up to 1.5 mm long. The leaves are about 2-19 cm in diameter and are typically a deep purple colour underneath.
Pygmy Water-lily (Nymphaea tetragona)
This species is also relatively rare, occurring sporadically in our Boreal Forest. The key distinguishing characters of Pygmy Water-lily are its small size, bright, purple stigma at the very center of the flower, and the square-shaped floral base. All other water-lilies have a yellow stigma and a rounded floral base. The flowers are similar in size and petal number to Dwarf Water-lily. The leaves are typically 2-13 cm in diameter and are often green, mottled with purple on top, and shiny and green underneath.
Sometimes Dwarf and Pygmy Water-lilies hybridize to form unusually large plants. These hybrids have squared flower bases and large leaves with a purplish underside.
Water-lilies are often confused with pond lilies (Nuphar spp.). However, pond-lilies have bright yellow flowers that smell a bit like mango and oval leaves with feather-like veins. Water-lilies have round leaves with all the veins arising from the center of the leaf, like the palm of your hand.
If you’re out on a boat in one of Manitoba’s many lakes this July or August and you see a water-lily, take a picture and send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) along with the location where you found it to help improve our knowledge of these species. Don't forget to flip a leaf over and take a picture of that too!
Most of the plants in the Museums’ dioramas are real plants that have been preserved and often painted. However, in some cases the preserved plants can simply not be used. This is especially true if the diorama is set in spring (e.g. wolf diorama in the Boreal Forest Gallery) or summer (e.g. bog diorama in the Boreal Forest gallery). In such cases, we make our own plants.
The process required to create a realistic fake plant is a long and laborious one. The first step is to actually obtain a real, live plant of the species that you want to reproduce. First off, a location as close to the Museum as possible that contains the species required is identified. Then, landowner permission or government collecting permits are obtained. When the plant is at the right stage of flowering, a field trip to collect it is planned, usually first thing in the morning. An appropriately sized plant is chosen, and photographs and notes on the colour are taken. Then, the entire plant, along with a good chunk of sod, is dug out, placed in a bucket, watered to keep it from wilting too much, and driven to the Museum. This is the phase of the project that I, as the Curator, are typically involved with.
The remainder of the work is now with the Diorama Artist. She removes each part of the plant and makes molds of them. Then the molds are used to create fake leaves, stems and flowers or fruits. The fake parts must all be painted to the correct colour and then attached together using glue and wire in the correct way. It’s kind of like building a complex 3D puzzle. When the model is complete it is almost indistinguishable from a real one. I’d love to do a field trip where I would place the model in a real ecosystem and then see if anyone could actually find it. I’m pretty sure the Diorama Artist would kill me if I did that though (what if we couldn’t find it again!). Right now, several completed plant models are waiting in storage or on temporary display, for eventual installation in our new exhibits.
The mini dioramas in the Museum are even more challenging than the full scale ones because you can’t use real plants in the same way. Although real branches are used for the trees, they have to be coated with wax, carved and painted to look like a real tree in miniature. Creating leaves and branches is even more difficult. In the Duck Bay mini diorama in the Parklands Gallery, the Diorama Artist used stair-step moss (Hylocomnium) as the branches of spruce (Picea glauca) trees. Baby’s breath (Gypsophila), a non-native plant used extensively in the cut flower industry, was used to create the leaves of the deciduous trees and the shrubs along the forest floor.
The Manitoba Museum prides itself on the quality of our dioramas. Every time I look at them I see some new detail that I never saw before. The next time you come to the Museum, pay close attention to the plants in the dioramas and see if you can tell, what’s real and what’s not. You will gain a new appreciation of the talent and patience of our dedicated team of staff and volunteers.
When people come to the Museum and see our dioramas they are usually impressed with the majestic, taxidermied animals in them. But what they really ought to be impressed with are the plants. I find it amazing that the trees in the elk diorama are perpetually in the process of shedding their leaves.
Anyone familiar with Manitoba’s forests and prairies, know that the plant species in our dioramas are the same ones that occur in the wild. That’s because, for the most part, they ARE real specimens. Although fake plants are readily available in stores, they are almost all tropical species that don’t occur in Manitoba. Further, mass-produced fake plants are usually too perfect to be entirely realistic. Nature is not perfect. Every animal (including you) and every plant is imperfect with discolorations and asymmetrical features. Real spruce and pine trees never look as perfect as artificial Christmas trees.
To create our dioramas, real plants and fungi were identified and collected from natural areas (with permission from the landowner of course) and then pickled, glued and preserved in various ways. This preservation process, which takes many months to do, is essential to make it look like the plants are still alive; taking short cuts would destroy the illusion that you are in a real place. There are various problems that have to be overcome to ensure that our plants look right. For one, wood has a tendency to dry out and crack when you bring it into a building. That is why we have to pickle our trees to prevent this from happening. Another thing that happens when you bring a tree into a building is that the leaves fall off, unless it is in a pot and being watered. To prevent our leaves from falling off, special glues are applied to ensure they stay attached. We also need to make sure that the “floor” of the diorama looks real. We do this by attaching pieces of real sod to Styrofoam blocks that can easily be installed, removed and repaired.
Anyone who has seen a dead plant knows that it turns brown as it dries out. So why are some of our diorama plants still green? The answer is paint: lots and lots of paint. That, and the infinite patience of a host of leaf-painting volunteers. That’s right someone painted every single one of the tree leaves in our dioramas, as well as many shrub, moss and grass leaves too. To make sure that the plants were painted the right colour, the Diorama Artist closely examined all the plants while they were alive, determined exactly which colour they were, and then blended paints to achieve the same colour. As painting plants is a lot of work, fall (e.g. elk diorama in the Parklands Gallery) and early spring (e.g. Bison diorama in the Orientation Gallery) dioramas are much easier to create because most of the vegetation is dead and brown at that time of the year anyway.
But not all the parts of a plant or fungus can be dried and painted. Plants in summer scenes have to possess flowers and fruits but these structures usually look terrible when they are dried out. So what do we do in those situations? In my next blog I will describe the process used to create plants from scratch.
This January what I like to call the Museum’s “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” in the Arctic/Subarctic gallery, got polished up with some new paint and a new background. It’s still lopsided as ever (it did grow in the arctic after all) but now it has some friends in the background. This often missed mini-diorama is about Manitoba’s treeline: the part of the province where trees start to disappear.
The black spruce (Picea mariana) tree in the diorama is known as a “krummholz”, a German word that means “crooked wood”. Krummholz trees grow in environments that are extremely difficult to survive in, including the far north and the tops of mountains. The trees in Manitoba’s north are subjected to strong winds that blow snow and ice around, which tends to kill the buds on the windward (northern) sides of the trees. The buds that do survive tend to be lower down on the tree, where they are protected by snow in the winter or on the southern side of the branch where it is marginally less nasty. This gives the trees their unique, flag-like appearance.
Woody plants in the far north grow very slowly due to the short growing season and poor fertility of the soil. This is why, despite the small size of krummholz trees, they are often quite old. A tree only four or five centimeters in diameter could be over 50 years old! The same tree species growing near Winnipeg would likely be at least ten times as large.
As part of a project to add new murals to the oldest galleries, the wall behind the tree was repainted and covered with a mural of other krummholz trees in northern Manitoba. The little tree was then given a good dusting, fresh paint on some of its needles and some new plants at the base by our diorama artist. It is the first of several murals in the Arctic/Subarctic and Boreal Forest Galleries that will be added soon.
Although Christmas is considered to be a “Christian” holiday, many of the rituals we associate with it, such as kissing under mistletoe, are actually pagan in origin. European mistletoe (Viscum album) was considered to be a magical plant by Druidic priests because it mysteriously grew on the branches of trees without its roots reaching the soil. Further, it stayed green in winter, and produced its berries in November and December when other plants were going dormant. Druidic priests collected mistletoe from oak trees to hang in homes in the hopes that it would ward off evil. The custom of kissing under it might have grown from a Scandinavian myth regard Baldur, the god of peace (Foster and Johnson, 2006). The myth states that Baldur was slain by an arrow made of mistletoe but then brought back to life. To commemorate this resurrection, mistletoe was given to the goddess of love, who declared that anyone passing under it should receive a kiss so that the plant would be associated with love not death.
In reality European mistletoes’ seemingly magical appearance is actually due to the fact that it is a semi-parasitic plant on coniferous and deciduous trees. This means that while it has leaves that can photosynthesize its own sugars, it steals water and minerals from a host plant. It is known to infect about 200 different tree species! European mistletoe berries are an important source of food for birds (they are poisonous to people though), which disperse the seeds throughout the forest in their feces and by rubbing the sticky seeds off their beaks. Seeds that land on the branches of trees will germinate there, producing a special root that penetrates through the bark so it can tap into the trees’ sap. Trees infected with European mistletoe are weakened but not usually killed by it. Oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), grows in the eastern parts of the United States and Mexico. It is very similar in appearance to European mistletoe but only infects deciduous trees. Oak mistletoe is the species that you can buy fresh in some parts of Canada at Christmas time, although it is not native here.
Manitoba has two species of mistletoe: American dwarf (Arceuthobium americanum) and dwarf mistletoe (A. pusillum). Unlike European and oak mistletoe, these species are complete parasites so they do not produce any green leaves. For this reason they are not particularly attractive, consisting mainly of yellowish-green stems with tiny flowers that mature into bluish berries. The fruits of Manitoba’s mistletoes explosively eject their seeds at speeds up to 80 km/hour, travelling up to 18 metres away from the parent plant. Since the seeds are coated in sticky mucilage, they will adhere to whatever surface they hit, potentially infecting another tree. As these species cause “witches’ brooms” on the conifer trees that they parasitize (usually spruce or pine), and eventually cause tree death, they are not looked upon fondly by foresters. Trees infected with mistletoe become deformed, and are less useful for commercial timber.
Regardless of whether you love or hate mistletoe, you have to admit that they are among the world’s most interesting and unusual plants.
Foster, S. and R.L. Johnson. 2006. Desk reference to nature’s medicine. National Geographic, Washington, D.C.
When people find out I’m a botanist they always start asking me about their houseplants. Unfortunately, I really don’t know much about houseplants as they are pretty much all tropical or desert plants, not native species, which is where my expertise lies. Not wanting to seem rude by saying “how should I know what’s wrong with your stupid Ficus”, I began thinking about the things I could say using my knowledge about plant ecology. The best advice I was able to come up with is to learn about where your houseplant comes from originally and use that information to adjust how you treat your plant. In this spirit, here is some good general advice. Obviously, the best advice to follow is the instructions on that little tag that comes with the plant. But if you’ve lost the tag and don’t know what species is, there are a few things the plant can tell you about itself.
1. Thick, fleshy leaved plants
Plants with thick, fleshy leaves or stems and spines, are succulents. This means they are probably adapted to dry, desert environments where they might go without rain for months at a time. When it does rain, the plants suck up the water quickly, often storing it as a kind of gel. These plants thrive on neglect and are excellent if you travel a lot as you can leave them for weeks at a time without watering them. In fact, overwatering can kill them, as can the way you water them. Succulents don’t like their “feet” (i.e. roots) wet for very long. To water a succulent properly, wait until the leaves/stems get wrinkly-this means they are using their stored water to live. Place your pot in a sink, shower or bathtub, pour in a whole bunch of lukewarm water and let it drain through the hole in the bottom overnight (DON’T use a pot with a water tray at the bottom). I water my succulent pot only about once a month. Also succulents love sun so they typically need a southern-facing window to be happy.
Examples: Century plant (Agave), aloes (Aloe), jade plant (Crassula), Euphorbia (Euphorbia), burrow’s tail (Sedum), and cactuses
2. Wide, dark green, thin-leaved plants
Plants with wide, dark leaves tend to be forest floor dwellers, vines or tropical bromeliads. Since very little light penetrates to the forest floor they need big leaves to intercept enough light. Putting such a plant in a hot, southern window will probably make it miserable as it will get the botanical equivalent of sunburn. They may drop their leaves and grow newer, smaller, paler ones in response to these conditions. These types of plants typically do OK in northern-facing windows or indirect light. They generally also hate drying out so they should be watered fairly frequently to keep the soil damp. A word of caution: some of these plants like humid conditions and may not grow well in a dry house; they might be happier in a terrarium or near a humidifier.
Examples: Chinese evergreen (Agalonema), cast-iron plant (Aspidistra), pothos (Epipremnum), Chinese fan palm (Livistona), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), bromeliads, ferns and many orchids
3. Narrow, pale green or silvery-leaved plants
Plants with narrow leaves are often from sunny, somewhat dry habitats like savannas, grasslands and open forests. They generally prefer east, west or south-facing windows and may do OK with indirect light. Unlike succulents, they typically need moister soil conditions although they will still need good drainage.
Examples: Spider plant (Chlorophytum), umbrella plant (Cyperus), dragon plant (Dracena), date palm (Phoenix), yuccas (Yucca)
That’s about all I know about houseplants. Good luck not killing yours!
One of the first papers on pollination I tried to publish got rejected because I had data from only one field season. So I withdrew the paper and did another year of research. But why is having two years of data so important? It is mainly because the world is a messy place.
This year I conducted a second year of pollinator surveys at the Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve. One thing I learned was that the flowering season starts much earlier than I had anticipated. Initially I thought August would be the month with the most flowers blooming but now I know that May has more due to the abundance of common chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum). Further, there were several plants that I did not think were particularly attractive to pollinators. In 2016 I observed only a few pollinators visiting gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata), and concluded that it was probably an unimportant plant. However, in 2017, I observed this plant at peak bloom and, after averaging the data, discovered that it was actually one of the most frequently visited plants. So without two years’ worth of data, the importance of some species would have been underestimated.
When looking at data is important to understand what the word “average” really means; it can be a bit misleading because it implies that most things are the same. In fact, it could mean that things are usually different. Take something like the number of times pollinators visit a group of plants. If I say the average number of visits per hour is 18 you would think that means you would typically see three visits every ten minutes all summer long. But that’s not what happens at all. On cool, windy days I sometimes saw less than one visit every hour. On warm days however, 25 to 50 visits an hour was typical. So the average is actually the number in between these extremes and not really representative of what you would see on any given day. Only by collecting lots of data over long periods of time can you really get a good idea of what is going on in an ecosystem.
So why do we see such extreme fluctuations in nature? Certainly the weather, time of year, land usage and life cycles affect plants and pollinators but there are also other factors that we just don’t entirely understand. In fact, ecologists rarely expect to find a reason for all the variability they observe in a system. Long-term and multi-year studies are valuable because they help us see beyond the noise of the data. An accurate picture of how ecosystems work, and might adapt to environmental changes, cannot be assessed without this type of research.
This research is made possible by funding from the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Manitoba Museum Foundation.