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I once caught a plant that was this big

This summer I spent some time doing what badgers do: digging. What was I digging for? Plant roots. Usually when I collect plants for the Museum I take only a few stems of the above ground portion so that the plant doesn’t die. But this time I needed roots: long ones. I thought that digging up roots would be pretty awful but the soil was sandy, the weather co-operated and, thanks to the presence of two co-workers, it did not take as long as I thought. The worst part was hauling all our gear over the sand dunes to the spot where we would be digging. So why did I need roots? They are for a new Museum exhibit.

This white prairie-clover (Dalea candida) plant was eroding out of a dune and would soon be dead.

Our Diorama and Collections Technician looked like a badger digging up the root.

In late 2020, the Museum will be opening our new Prairies Gallery. This gallery will represent years of work by the staff at the museum, in particular the Curators and conservation staff. One of the exhibits that I am involved in is a new case illustrating life below the surface of a native prairie. In our original gallery we have a wonderful specimen of grass showing the full extent of its root system. You’ve probably seen it: it’s a pretty impressive specimen. There’s just one problem: it is not a native species. It’s actually a Eurasian species called crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum). It was brought to Canada in the 1930’s to help prevent the soil from blowing away during the droughts of that decade.

The crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) specimen currently in the Museum will be moved to a new location.

So we decided to display some native plant root systems for a new case near the entrance to the gallery. Although we are growing a few specimens in a greenhouse for this exhibit, one of the flowers we wanted was not doing well in that environment. After remembering that there are plants with exposed roots on the sand dunes in Spruce Woods Provincial Park, I arranged to excavate one of the common species, white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), with the permission of Manitoba Sustainable Development.

After digging, we filled in the hole and patted the sand back into place.

During a reconnaissance trip in July, I found a nice specimen that was eroding out of the dunes and in all likelihood would soon die. After taking some pictures and making a few notes, we channelled our inner badgers and began digging it up. In the end we obtained an impressive 160 cm piece of root along with the flowering stems. Although there were more fine roots lower down, the part we dug up is longer than we can even fit in the case so we left them behind. Since the site was a bit of a mess afterwards, we filled in the hole and patted the dune back to its previous contours. I was happy that a heavy rain that evening obliterated all evidence that we were ever there. The plant is now being pickled by the Diorama and Collections Technician in our secret proprietary solution (even I don’t know what’s in it!) to keep it fresh-looking and bendy!  Eventually it will be painted and mounted in its permenent home next fall.

We had to carefully haul the plant out along with our digging tools using a sled.

So what is happening with the old crested wheatgrass plant? Don’t worry, it will still be on display but reinterpreted for its role in soil stabilization during Great Depression.

Our plant was packed into a pail containing our secret pickling solution for the trip to the Museum.


Bogs and Dunes: Together at Last!

Water-saturated bogs and burning hot, cactus-covered sand dunes are not the kinds of habitats that you would normally expect to find near each other. But on a recent trip to Canadian Forces Base Shilo, I was surprised to find just that!

The shore of Sewell Lake was a fascinating place for plants.

In July, I was able to visit this restricted area to collect plants as part of a research project. We went to a part of the base that I have never been to before: Sewell Lake. I was expecting the kind of vegetation that you typically find along a prairie wetland: cattails, sedges and bulrushes. What I discovered was an area that looked more like a bog in the middle of the boreal forest. Thick mats of moss floated on top of water and threatened to swallow you up if you weren’t careful. Aquatic plants like water calla (Calla palustris), buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) and marsh cinquefoil (Comarum palustre) lined the shore. Even pitcherplants (Sarracenia purpurea) have been found in the deepest areas of the bog. Turtles swam in the water and all sorts of amazing insects were everywhere. It was truly unusual and a biologists’ delight.

Water calla (Calla palustris) is usually found in northern lakeshores and bogs.

But what was the oddest thing was that not even 50-m away from this wetland there was a huge sand dune that ran parallel to the lakeshore. While walking along the ridge of this dune, I encountered rare plants that you only find on the driest of prairies: prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis), and pincushion cactus (Coryphantha vivipara), winged pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium), American bugseed (Corispermum americanum), and the lovely hairy prairie-clover (Dalea villosa). Our guide told us that there are an astounding 450 species of vascular plants on the base lands, an impressive number when you consider that there are only just under 1700 plant species in the whole province.

Fragile prickly pear cactus (Opuntia fragilis) is a highly drought tolerant species.

So, on the one side there were plants that were adapted to dealing with an excess of water and on the other plants that dealt with an almost complete lack of it. So how do plants deal with these conditions? They possess completely different internal structures.  In wet habitats, the biggest danger to plants is a lack of oxygen. You’re probably puzzled. Don’t plants need carbon dioxide? Well yes they need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, which occurs mainly in the leaves, but they also need oxygen to break down the sugars they create to obtain energy for growth. This isn’t a problem for leaves and roots living in soil with lots of air pockets but it is a problem in water-saturated soils. To get oxygen to the roots, many aquatic plants have special tissue called aerenchyma–tissue with big air tubes in it–which functions a bit like a snorkel. The plant moves oxygen from the holes in their leaves, called stomata, all the way through these tubes to the roots. Problem solved! Regular dryland plants don’t have aerenchyma, which is why over-watering your houseplants can kill them; they basically suffocate.

For aquatic plants, not drowning is an essential skill!

In contrast, for plants in dry habitats like sand dunes, obtaining and retaining water is the problem. To obtain water they either grow roots deep enough to reach the water table, or absorb water quickly when it does rain by growing extra root hairs. To prevent water loss, they may possess thick “skin” that prevents evaporation; cacti are a good example of this. As well, they can prevent evaporation of their water by keeping their air holes (stomata) closed during the heat of the day, opening them to obtain gases at times when it isn’t so hot.

Plants on dune ridges take a siesta from photosynthesis in the heat of the day.

The structural uniqueness of plants is not always appreciated, recognized or understood by non-botanists. But really the difference between plants in bogs and sand dunes is like the difference between a fish and a camel!


A crash course in pollinator identification

Now that the weather is nice and warm, you’re probably seeing pollinators flying about. The main insect pollinators in Manitoba in order of decreasing abundance are: bees, flies, butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles. If you’d like to tell them apart, there are a few key features you need to look for. First off, count the number of wings. Are there four or just two? What is the texture like: membranous, hard or covered in tiny scales? Second, look at the body: is it smooth or covered with hairs? Does the area where the chest (thorax) connects to the belly (abdomen) get really narrow? Third, check out the antennae. Are they long, short, smooth or feathery? Lastly, is the insect intentionally gathering pollen on its legs or just drinking nectar? Asking these simple questions will help you identify your pollinator.

Parts of an insect, as labelled on a bumblebee (Bombus sp.). Drawing by Silvia Battaligni

People are sometimes frightened by bees thanks to stories about “killer bees” but our native ones are actually pretty timid because stinging will kill them. They are usually so intent on feeding that they will ignore you completely. The main bees you will find in Manitoba are bumblebees (Bombus), honeybees (Apis), leafcutter and mason bees (Megachilidae), sweat bees (Halictidae), polyester bees (Colletidae) and mining bees (Andrenidae). Bees like a wide range of plants but seem to prefer yellow, purple or blue flowers. Longer tongued bumblebees prefer tubular plants like legumes.


Bumblebees (Bombus sp.) like tubular flowers like Hedysarum (Hedysarum boreale). Note the yellow pollen ball on its leg; only bees collect pollen like this.

The key characters of bees include:
* Four lacy (membranous) wings;
* Pronounced waists;
* Long antennae;
* Eyes at the side of the head;
* Lots of branched hairs;
* Pollen-carrying structures like leg baskets (bumblebees & honeybees), leg hairs (sweat, mining and digger bees) or belly hairs (leaf-cutter bees);
* Straight, long- or short-tongues;
* Body colour ranging from pale to dark yellow, orange or white and black striped, rusty brown and black, or shiny blue and green.

Wasps are closely related to bees but rather than being complete vegetarians, they typically feed their young meat (i.e. usually other insects). Since wasps can sting multiple times, they are usually more aggressive than bees. Most wasp species will not bother you but paper wasps, hornets or yellow jackets (Vespidae) can be very territorial so give them a wide berth. Wasps have short tongues so they tend to visit flowers that are open or have short floral tubes. Wasps have:
• Four lacy (membranous) wings;
• Pronounced waists;
• Long antennae;
• Eyes at the side of the head;
• No body hair or unbranched hairs only;
• No pollen-carrying structures;
• Straight short-tongues;
• Body colours that are often bright yellow and black or brown striped, or various solid colours (e.g. black, brown, green).

Sand wasp (Bembix pruinosa) on a hairy prairie-clover (Dalea villosa). Wasps are common in sand hills habitats.

Surprising to many people is the fact that a wide diversity of flies are pollinators. In fact they are second in importance to bees (take that butterflies!). Flies tend to like open (not tubular) flowers that are white or yellow. Flower flies (Syrphidae) often look similar to bees with yellow or orange and black stripes while bee flies (Bombyliidae) look like tiny pussy willow catkins with wings. Soldier (Stratiomyiidae) and blow flies (Calliphoridae) are often bright green in colour and not very hairy, while parasitic (Tachinidae) and Muscid (Muscidae) flies look very similar to house flies with black or grey bodies and long, coarse hairs. The key ways to tell these insects apart though are:
• Two wings only;
• No waist;
• Large eyes near the front of the head;
• Short, club-like antennae;
• Unbranched hairs, if any;
• No pollen-carrying structures;
• Straight short or long tongues.

Flower flies (Helophilus sp.) are often striped like a bee.

Bee flies (Systoechus vulgaris) look like pussy willows due to their fuzzy bodies.


Butterflies are pretty easy to tell apart from bees, wasps and flies because they have large wings. But telling them apart from moths can be a bit more difficult. Typically butterflies are active only during the day and have:
• Four large, brightly coloured wings;
• Wings that fold upright when not in flight;
• Long antennae typically with a bulb at the tip;
• Long, curled tongues.
As they have fairly long tongues, butterflies often prefer flowers with long tubes like bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). But smaller butterflies, like skippers (Hesperiidae), often like flat topped asters like black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata).

Many butterfly species like black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Although moths are typically active only at night (nocturnal) a few species forage during the day (diurnal) like hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris). Nocturnal moths prefer tubular flowers that are white but diurnal moths will visit brighter coloured plants, like hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) as well. You can tell moths apart from butterflies by their:
• Four large, often duller coloured wings, sometimes with “eye spots”;
• Wings that stay flat and out to the side when not flying;
• Long antennae that are often feather-like not clubbed;
• Long, curled tongues.

Though usually active at night, you can sometimes find Sphinx moths (Hyles sp.) hanging out on vegetation during the day.

Beetles are not the most common pollinators but there are a few species that will feed on the nectar of flowers that are flat, like woolly yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Beetles have:
• Four wings: two membranous, two hard;
• Short or long antennae;
• No hairs;
• Short tongues.

Red-checkered beetles (Trichodes nuttallii) prefer flat, open flowers like this wild blue flax (Linum lewisii).

Great web pages with image of pollinators can be found at:
BugGuide https://bugguide.net/node/view/15740
Xerces Society https://xerces.org/

Happy pollinator watching!


A crash course in pollinator-friendly gardening

The loss of biodiversity and plight of wild pollinators has been all over the news lately. If you’re interested in doing something to make life easier for these creatures, you might want to consider making your garden more pollinator friendly this year. Pollinators have three basic needs: food, nesting/breeding habitat and shelter.

The best thing you can do is grow at least some native plants in your yard. Native plants have the correct flower shape to fit the local pollinators and typically produce highly nutritious nectar and pollen. Cultivars of native plants, like bee balm (Monarda), and Echinacea (Echinacea) may be OK, but some research indicates that they may produce lower quality nectar and be less frequently visited than native species (https://www.humanegardener.com/flower-power-a-qa-with-annie-white/). Cultivars that are highly modified (e.g. double bloomed species), or lack nectar and pollen (e.g. sterile hybrids) are useless for pollinators. To provide a regular food supply, ensure you have selected a sequence of plants that flower all through the growing season. Helpful ecoregional planting guides have been created by Pollinator Partnership Canada and can be found here: https://www.pollinator.org/guides-canada. Good plant choices for southern Manitoba are noted below.

Some cultivars of native plants like bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) may not provide as much nectar as the wild type.

Flowers for spring insects
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), strawberries (Fragaria), three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum), native or domesticated cherries and plums (Prunus spp.), wild roses (Rosa acicularis), native or domesticated raspberries (Rubus), meadowsweet (Spirea alba), native violets (e.g. Western Canada violet (Viola canadensis)), and Alexanders (Zizia) all bloom in early May or June. Queen bees, butterflies and/or flower flies will visit these species. Pansies are pretty but typically the wrong size for native pollinators.

Queen bumblebees frequently visit Western Canada violet (Viola canadensis). Their beautiful heart-shaped leaves provide a lovely texture in shady areas.

Flowers for summer insects
Wild legumes like prairie-clover (Dalea), leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and Indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), as well as giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), milkweeds (Asclepias), fleabanes (Erigeron), wild mint (Mentha arvensis), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) are good choices for summer. They will attract all kinds of bees, butterflies and flower flies.

Flowers for fall insects
Native composites such as coneflower (Echinacea), blazingstar (Liatris), white aster (Oligoneuron album), goldenrods (Solidago), and asters (Symphyotrichum) are great for fall bees.

Bumblebees (Bombus) and many other pollinators love rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida). It is one of the most frequently visited native plants and it doesn’t cause hay fever!

Flowers for hummingbirds
To attract hummingbirds specifically, tube-shaped flowers that are red, pink or orange are good choices. Grow plants like wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), wild iris (Iris versicolor), western red lily (Lilium philadelphicum) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) to attract them, and consider putting a hummingbird feeder nearby for extra nourishment.

Hummingbirds will visit Western red lilies (Lilium philadelphicum).

Nesting/breeding Habitat
Pollinators need safe places to build their nests. However, different pollinators have different needs. Some bees prefer bare, sandy soil while others nest in tunnels in wood or plant stems. By not mulching all of your bare soil, especially in sunny spots with south facing slopes, you can provide habitat for ground-nesting bees. You can create artificial nesting areas for cavity nesting leaf-cutter and mason bees by building a bee condo (https://www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/building_bee_nesting_block) or hanging some hollow stems like bamboo, in bundles above the ground. Bumblebees prefer nesting in small cavities or under piles of leaves. To attract butterflies to breed, you must provide them with their larval host plants, often native flowers or grasses (http://www.naturenorth.com/butterfly/english/06%20host%20and%20nectar.html). Hummingbirds will nest in small trees, often using milkweed and thistle down, moss and lichen for their nests.

Monarch butterfly larvae need milkweed (Asclepias) leaves to feed on.

Pollinators need places where they can spend the winter or undergo metamorphosis. In general, pollinators like “messy places” like tall clumps of grass, bushes, and leaf, rock or wood piles. Identify an area in your yard that you don’t use regularly and designate that as your pollinator “messy place”. Leave small wood piles there and in fall, rather than raking up every last leaf, create a leaf pile there. Another thing you can do is delay some of your yard clean up till spring. Instead of pruning all your perennial flowers and throwing the dead stems in the compost, leave them standing up until spring. This dead vegetation will help to insulate overwintering queen bees and butterfly larvae from the cold.

Happy gardening and good luck with your project! In my next blog, I’ll be giving a crash course in how to identify all those fascinating little pollinators that will be coming to your new pollinator friendly yard.


Plants just want to have sex

I personally feel a little sorry for plants.  When plants want to have sex they can’t just go to a bar to meet someone; they are stuck in the ground.  So what’s an amorous plant to do?

For most of the earth’s history plants lived in water.  When they wanted to have sex they just released their sperm into the ocean where it would swim around for a while before fertilizing some eggs.  Pretty simple.  But as the oceans got crowded some plants looked with envy at the land, where there was plenty of room to grow and plenty of sunlight for photosynthesis.  So about 470 million years ago (mya) in the Ordovician period, some enterprising young plants decided to head for the hills.  These plants were mosses, ferns, club-mosses and horsetails.

Mosses still need water to successfully reproduce.

What most people don’t know about these plants is that they still need water to have sex.  For that reason they are actually the botanical equivalent of amphibians.  They can live on land but they still need water for reproduction.  During wet times of the year, these plants release tiny sperm into the environment that swim through the water on the forest floor to fertilize the eggs of another plant.

The sperm of ferns like this rock polypody (Polypodium virginianum) need to swim through water to fertilize another plants’ eggs.

For about 80 million years all the plants on land still needed water to complete their life cycles.  But it started to get a little crowded in the swamp.  Fortunately, there was still a lot of land available where no plants grew.  The only problem was, it was too dry.  About 390 mya in the mid Devonian some plants looked to the skies for inspiration and noticed something interesting: wind.

A few adventurous species decided to release their sperm into the air all wrapped up in a water-tight, yet aerodynamic little package, kind of like a tiny ping pong ball.  This structure is called pollen and the first plants to make pollen were the gymnosperms, better known as conifers or evergreen trees.  Gymnosperms are the botanical equivalent of reptiles, which were the first animals to no longer need water for reproduction.

This female Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) cone has been fertilized by wind-blown pollen and is ripening its seeds.

About 125 mya yet another group of plants evolved and they had a distinct advantage over the gymnosperms: they could reproduce a lot faster.  Gymnosperm reproduction takes a long time: about 15 months for most species to produce a ripe seed.  In contrast, some flowering plants can complete their life cycle in a just a couple of months.  The very first flowering plants also used wind for reproduction.

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) are flowering plants that use the wind to disperse their pollen in spring before the leaves unfold.

Wind pollination is fine and dandy but it can be fairly wasteful; most of the pollen produced just lands on the dirt and dies.  Then about 100 mya an enterprising group of insects saw an untapped market for their services; they would open a plant dating service for all those lonely trees–let’s call it “Timber”.  In exchange for a few grains of pollen, which probably would have died anyway, the insect would move pollen from one flower to another.  It was a win-win situation!  Eventually, some plants started producing a sweet beverage called nectar to “pay” the insects in order to reduce pollen losses even further.  Wasps and beetles were some of the very first insect pollinators.

Water-lilies (Nymphaea odorata) were some of the first insect-pollinated plants to evolve.

As with most businesses, sometimes the employees don’t get along.  Although wasps drink nectar from plants, they also eat meat, mainly in the larval stage.  Now, one group of wasps found that they preferred a strictly vegetarian diet.  They decided to split from their colleagues at “Timber” and form their own dating service; let’s call it “Bumble…bee”.

Bees are wasps’ vegan cousins and because they rely exclusively on plant nectar and pollen to survive, they are among the most faithful and effective pollinators in the world.  In Manitoba over half of all pollinator visits in the prairies and parklands are performed by bees.  It is because bees are such good pollinators that scientists have been so worried about declining bee populations.  Although we don’t always notice pollinators, they fertilize about 87.5% of the worlds’ flowering plants (Ollerton et al. 2011) so the loss of our planet’s pollinators would truly be a disaster.

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are some of the most active pollinators in Manitoba, shown here on a wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) plant.

If you think your sex life is complicated, you don’t have anything on plants. Some plants have separate males and females just like people (e.g. buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), salt grass (Distichlis stricta), willows (Salix spp.), Manitoba maples (Acer negundo), etc.). But some of these plants, like sweet gale (Myrica gale), can switch their sexual orientation from year to year; female one year, male the next. Most plants are hermaphrodites, producing both sperm AND eggs. Furthermore, plants can reproduce themselves without even having sex. Some plants can self-pollinate, or even skip the pollination process altogether and grow a cloned seed. The pads of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) can detach and form completely independent plants-essentially little clones. This would be like you detaching your arm and having it grow into a clone of yourself.

Pollen is everywhere: in the water, in the sky and covering many of the animals.  As pollen grains contain sperm and germinate when they land on the stigma of a flower, they are essentially tiny, little male plants.  This spring, when you’re walking outside and you see pollen falling around you I want you to remember that sometimes it really does rain men!



Ollerton, J., R. Winfree, and S. Tarrant. “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?.” Oikos 120.3 (2011): 321-326.


WADING FOR WATER LILIES: How a landlubber botanist learned to love collecting aquatic plants

I’m a landlubber I admit it. How could I not be? I’m from Saskatchewan. That’s the driest place in the country! Not only is it completely devoid of coastline, but its largest lake is practically in the arctic. Before I came here I did field work in Grasslands National Park, a place where the Frenchman “River” is shallow enough to wade across. Then I did field work in the Great Sand Hills, a place where there is no water at all, just sand.

When I moved to Manitoba I noticed right away that something was wrong; the air was weird. I’m used to having all the moisture sucked out of my body by hot, dry air. In Manitoba I felt damp, like I was perpetually in a steam room. I began noticing that the vegetation was unusual as well. Plants that grew up to my ankles back in Saskatchewan were up to my waist here. And there were weird mushrooms sprouting up everywhere—even in the city—things that looked like brains and hair and ears. Lichens cover everything that doesn’t move: rocks, trees, benches, farm equipment. Sit on a bench long enough and they’ll probably start growing on you.

I had never seen so many weird mushrooms until I moved to Manitoba. This brain-like mushroom is a false morel (Gyromitra).

Being a prairie girl, I was attracted to the idea of doing field work in tall grass prairie, an ecosystem that I was unfamiliar with but that I assume (incorrectly) would be dry. So I got permission to do some pollinator research out at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in 2004. When I got there, I could barely find any prairie that wasn’t soaking in at least a foot of water.  Eventually I found out about Spruce Woods Provincial Park and its famous sand dunes. “Now that’s my kind of park” I thought “dessicatingly dry”. But as it turns out Spruce Woods ain’t no Great Sand Hills. Sure there are dunes there, but they’re surrounded by spruce forests, wetlands, a river and little springs bubbling out of the sand. Even the deserts in Manitoba are wet!

The dunes at Spruce Woods Provincial Park are actually pretty wet. There are rivers, lakes and springs in the park as well as sand dunes.

Then one day I was asked to prepare a collections assessment report to identify gaps the Museum’s plant collection.  I found out that of the 562 species of native plants that are underrepresented in the collection, a whopping 43% of them grew in some kind of wetland: a bog, a riparian area, a lake or a marsh. Clearly, reducing the gaps in the collection was going to require that I get wet. But I was reluctant to dive in to aquatic plant botany, never having done it before so I decided to focus my research on pollination ecology and ugly little rare plants that grew in sand dunes. As a result, I was able to avoid wetlands for many years.

Then one day a man named John Wiersema called me up. John is an American water-lily expert who helped write the volume on those plants in the Flora of North America. He had discovered several unusual herbarium specimens of water lilies from Canada, including one on the Minago River, which he thought might be a different species. But he needed fresh material to do genetic work to make sure. Was I willing to come along with him to search for this species? I was wary. We might need a boat. I don’t really do boats. “Perhaps we could just walk along the river bank?” I suggested.

Well that turned out to be a terrible idea as the banks of the Minago River just off of highway 6 contain the densest collection of deadfall and brush that I’ve ever bushwhacked through. I can’t recall how many times I tripped and very nearly impaled myself on a fallen log. Fortunately, John determined that that part of the river seemed unsuitable for this particular water-lily so we cut our surveys short. We decided to go further north to where the Minago crosses the highway leading to Manitoba Hydro’s Jenpeg Generating Station. Although no one at Manitoba Hydro was available to take us out on the water that day, they generously offered to fly us up at a later date and arrange a boat trip down the river. It was on that trip that I was to see what a real aquatic botanist was made of.

John just jumped in the river when he saw a plant he wanted.

A year later, John and I boarded a plane for Jenpeg. While on that trip I discovered the secret to becoming a successful aquatic botanist: you have wear clothes that you can remove quickly and easily.  When John saw a water lily he wanted, he just tossed off his shirt, unzipped his pant legs and dived right in. As it turns out, jumping into the river paid off. John got the specimens he needed, arranged for genetic analysis and was eventually able to publish a paper describing and naming the new water-lily: Lori’s Water-lily or Nymphaea loriana. Later on we published another article on the ecology and distribution of this species in The Canadian Field Naturalist, which won the James Fletcher Award for best paper in 2016.

This summer I began the field work necessary to understand the province’s floral diversity so that I can write a book on the Flora of Manitoba. At last I was going to have start looking for and collecting those aquatic plants that we know so little of. This summer I was going to have to get wet. But there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

It’s amazing how many aquatic plants you can collect from a shore line without actually stepping in the water. I spent many days combing shorelines for aquatic plants that had washed up so I wouldn’t have to go in the water. Out at Turtle Mountain and William Lake Provincial Parks I discovered the joys of lake docks and wetland boardwalks! I was able to collect all sorts of plants by just lying on my belly and reaching as far as I could. When necessary I used my trusty hiking pole to capture a few things that were just out of reach. I even went boating to collect a few things. Paddle boats are great for this. I know they’re the goofiest looking boats invented but for a botanist that wants to collect aquatic plants they are awesome. All in all I was pretty pleased with myself for avoiding the water.

Boardwalks are great places to reach submerged aquatic plants. This one is in Hecla Provincial Park.

Then the moment I had been dreading finally happened. There was an aquatic plant in flower that I really, really wanted. I searched the shoreline in vain for one that had washed up. Nothing. None were in arms reach. I was defeated: I’d have to get wet. So I took off my hiking boots and waded in. To my surprise the water was wonderful! I had spent all afternoon hiking up the Turtle’s Back peak and my feet were hot and sore. Sticking my feet in that cool water and squishing my toes around in the mud felt great. Eventually I realized that getting wet to collect a plant isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The botanist in the lake with a freshly captured specimen.

P.S. Collecting plants in national and provincial parks is illegal (with the exception of berries and mushrooms) unless you have a permit (which I do).



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”.

Sedges (Scirpus sp.) growing along the shore of Adam Lake in Turtle Mountain Provincial Park.

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).

Shale outcrops with unusual plants occur at Mount Nebo, near Miami, Manitoba.

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.

Boardwalks over wetlands enable easy collection of aquatic plants. Fortunately I didn’t have to use this boardwalk as a new one had been built right next to it.

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.

The sign at the base of the lookout tower at the Turtle’s Back peak in William Lake Provincial Park.

View from the top of the tower on Turtle’s Back summit, in William Lake Provincial Park.


The summer of ugly plants

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.

You’ve probably stepped on Oak-leaved Goosefoot (Chenopodium salinum) at the beach.  It grows on sandy, often saline shorelines.

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.

Some grass flowers such as this Fringed Brome (Bromus ciliatus) are actually quite attractive.  The colourful uppermost leaves (=glumes), which cover the flower parts, are purplish and covered with fine hairs.

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.

Aquatic plants like Mare’s-tail (Hippuris vulgaris) help filter water.

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.

Exotic grasses like Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis) are invading areas along the Rat River.


Why a strawberry isn’t a fruit (sort of)

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!

Ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris) aren’t the best botanical parents.

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!

Conifers like this pine (Pinus) provide their babies with food.

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!

Manitoba Maples (Acer negundo) provide their children with a vehicle. From Wikimedia Commons

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.

Raspberries (Rubus pubescens) aren’t berries: they are aggregate 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!

The fleshy part of a strawberry is actually an enlarged flower stalk. The things on them we call “seeds” are actually the fruits.



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.

Water-lilies (Nymphaea spp.) are typically found in fairly deep water in clear lakes and rivers.

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.

Fragrant Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata) has the largest flowers of all our native water-lilies.


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.

Lori’s Water-lily (Nymphaea loriana) is a newly discovered species found only in Canada.

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.

Lori’s Water-lily (Nymphaea loriana) is on the far left, Dwarf Water-lily (N. leibergii) is in the middle and Pygmy Water-lily (N. tetragona) is on the far right.


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.

Dwarf water-lily (Nymphaea leibergii) is relatively common in northern Manitoba.

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.

The rare Pygmy Water-lily (Nymphaea tetragona) has a distinctive purplish stigma.

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.

Pygmy water-lily (Nymphaea tetragona) is on the far left, Dwarf Water-lily (N. leibergii) on the far right and a hybrid between the two is in the middle.

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.

Pond-lilies (Nuphar spp.) have bright yellow flowers that smell like mango!

Pond-lily (Nuphar spp.) leaves are oval, not round and have feather-like veins.

The veins of round Water-lily (Nymphaea spp.) leaves all arise from the center.

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 (drobson@manitobamuseum.ca) 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!

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.