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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!


The art and science of diorama making part 2: The illusion of reality

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.

This marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) in the wolf diorama is completely fake.

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.

Models like this yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) are made by taking molds of real plant parts..

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.

This Small White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) model is on temporary display until a new exhibit case is ready.

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.

Moss and tree branches were used to make these mini-trees in the Duck Bay diorama.

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.


The art and science of diorama making, part 1: Perfectly imperfect

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.

The leaves on these aspen (Populus tremuloides) trees never fall off because they are glued on.

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.

You won’t find any pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea) models at Home Depot! That’s why we have to make them ourselves!

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.

This piece of sod from the Ukrainian Rye Farm diorama in the Parklands Gallery was temporarily removed for maintenance.

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.

Every single leaf on the trees in our dioramas were hand painted!

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.


Museum’s Charlie Brown Tree Gets “Spruced Up”

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 treeline exhibit with the old background. (c) MM


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.

The “spruced up” tree with a new background. (c) MM

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.


Oh no, mistletoe

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.

European mistletoe (Viscum album) growing on its host tree, an apple (Pyrus sp.). From Wikimedia Commons

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.

American dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum) growing on a pine tree. From Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Herbarium specimen of a Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) tree infected with dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum). TMM

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.

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.