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What a difference a year makes

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.

The summer blooming showy goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), here being visited by a bee fly, was less abundant than the spring blooming flowers.

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.

At Yellow Quill Prairie, common chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum) were abundant in May.

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.

I finally saw bumblebees visiting Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) in 2017.

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.


I always feel like something is watching me

Usually when I do field work I’m by myself. But sometimes I get the feeling that I’m being watched. The main things that have been watching me this year are the cows. The Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, is sustainably grazed by a herd of cows. Aside from using some of my plot stakes as scratching posts and knocking them down, they generally leave me alone and I leave them alone. Sometimes, though, they get a little curious and stare at me with those slightly vacant eyes as if they are expecting me to do something spectacular, and that’s when I start to feel a bit self-conscious. I have no idea what sorts of entertainment a cow would enjoy. Sometimes I moo at them just to see what they’ll do, which is usually nothing. Sometimes they moo back though and then I wonder exactly what was it I said. Where’s Dr. Dolittle when you need him?

The curious cows at the Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve like to stare at me.

I’ve also been looked over quite thoroughly by the resident Upland Sandpiper. Usually it just chatters at me but last week it flew over a couple times and then landed in the grass and started walking in a circle around my plot for a couple of minutes. It kept peeking out from behind the grass like it thought I was up to no good. Although I would have loved to get a good picture of it, it was just too sneaky and all I got was photo of it as it flew away.

This Upland Sandpiper kept stalking me!

Mammals and birds aren’t the only wary creatures at the preserve. A beautiful Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) was there, feeding on the Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) but, like most butterflies, it did not want me to take its' picture. Neither did a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris sp.). Those insects are so fast (like a hummingbird) that they are almost impossible to photograph. I did get one very blurry shot in before I could adjust my camera to “action mode” but by then it was gone. Maybe one day I’ll manage to take a decent photo of one.

This jittery Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), seen here feeding on a Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii), was not very photogenic.

In general, insects that have no form of self-defence, like butterflies and moths, are less apt to let you get anywhere near them. Or maybe they think they’re just too sexy for my camera. The jitteriness of butterflies has likely resulted in a flaw in my field data: I don’t know a lot about what they are feeding on, or how frequently they do so, due to their reluctance to approach me. I try to stay as still as possible, but I suspect that my butterfly and moth observations are low for this reason. Maybe I should start wearing camouflage.

I just managed to snap a blurry picture of this Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris sp.) on Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) before it zoomed away.

The presence of all these suspicious animals is why my favorite animals on the prairies are the bumblebees (Bombus spp.). Bumblebees are so confident that you are not going to hurt them (due to their stingers) that they’ll let you stick a camera right in their face! As a result I have a plethora of bumblebee images and some really great visitation data. Yeah bumblebees!

A Bumblebee (Bombus sp.), seen feeding here on a Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) flower, is just too busy to care if you take its picture.



Spring has sprung

Once again I am studying pollinators at the Nature Conservancy’s Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve (http://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/where-we-work/manitoba/featured-projects/yellow_quill_prairie.html) just south of Canadian Forces Base Shilo. Last year I made the mistake of starting my field surveys too late and missed the blooming of a number of early flowering plants like prairie crocus (Anemone patens), three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum) and chickweed (Cerastium arvense). This year I did my first survey on May 11, which was already almost too late for the crocuses but just in time for the others.

Prairie crocus (Anemone patens) finished flowering in early May.

Spring is not the busiest time on the prairies as bee populations are not at their peak yet. However, it is a very important time because the queen bees start feeding. Bee queens are the only ones that survive the winter, going into hibernation in the soil. In spring, the hungry queens begin feeding on both pollen and nectar from the early blooming wildflowers. Once they have fattened up a bit, they select appropriate nesting sites and lay the eggs that will produce the first worker bees. Some queen bees brood their eggs, keeping them warm until they hatch. The workers typically start showing up in June.

Queen bumblebees often feed on three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum).

My task this May was to find out what the queens were feeding on. Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) were most fond of three-flowered avens with 61% of all visits being to that species followed by chickweed (25%). Andrenid bees (Andrena spp.), on the other hand, preferred the chickweed visiting it 95% of the time. The little sweat bees (Lasioglossum spp.) weren’t terribly abundant yet but only visited the chickweed. In fact, one day it was so windy that I didn’t see any sweat bees at all. If they had ventured out, they would have been incapable of flying without getting completely blown off course as the wind speed was almost 50 km/hour. The few big insects that were out (e.g. bumblebees, clearwing moths) were zooming past me very quickly, if they were going in the direction of the wind that is.

Streaks of pink and white at Yellow Quill Prairie represent three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum) and chickweed (Ceratium arvense) flowers in abundance.

Interestingly, I also saw domesticated honeybees (Apis mellifera), visiting three-flowered avens and chickweed in equal amounts. These honeybees are being kept by one of the nearby farmers and, since there are no crops in flower yet, they were out searching for something to eat. To me, this clearly demonstrates the value of prairie preserves. Although some consider wild prairies to be “waste land” because they aren’t being used to grow crops, they do provide us with benefits: they help pollinating insects survive and reproduce, are a safe place for nesting, and are a source of honey for us to eat.

Happily, except for the strong wind that one day, the weather was great during my surveys: sunny and warm. Hopefully my luck will hold out and I’ll have clear skies for my next field trip in early June.


Make Goldenrods Great Again!

This is a blog about pollination. It’s gonna be great! You’ll love it. I write the best blogs. There’s this one plant—it’s a Goldenrod—it is THE best plant for pollinators. Manitoba has THE best plants for pollinators. Not like Ontario. All the pollinators love Goldenrod: bees, flies, butterflies, moths—even beetles. All the other plants in the prairie—losers. Can’t attract the pollinators! Can’t do it! But that Goldenrod! So many pollinators visit it that there’s this bug—it’s an ambush bug—that it sits on the Goldenrod and eats the pollinators that show up. It eats them! Totally devours them! Nothing left but a pathetic husk. Sad.

Ambush bug eating a pollinator!

Goldenrods are the best. They used to be all over the place. Then immigrants came, cut down all the Goldenrods and started growing plants from Eurasia. Like wheat. Pollinators don’t like wheat! They hate it! There’s no nectar! None! Now the native pollinators, they don’t have anything to eat! Nothing! That’s why we should grow Goldenrods. A lot of them. So many that it will look like a wall. A big, golden wall. It’s gonna be beautiful! The pollinators will love it.


More about Mycorrhizae

Have you ever seen an uprooted tree while walking in a forest? If so, you might have noticed strands of white thread-like structures attached to the tree roots and running through the soil. What you were seeing were mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi surround and bind almost all of the plants growing in an ecosystem together. Some of them, like the honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) are even luminous, glowing in the dark. The honey fungus is also the world's largest organism (that we know of, at least); one specimen stretches for an astounding 2.4 miles (3.8 km) (Ferguson et al. 2003)! This fungus is attached to hundreds of trees, which are also attached to countless other mycorrhizal fungi and forest plants. Sugars, water and nutrients are exchanged between the plants and the fungi. Trillions of insects and microorganisms live on, and interact with these fungi-root systems. Unfortunately, our understanding of this massive system is horrible, because we can’t actually see what is going on.
It’s important to remember that the parts of a forest or a prairie that we can see above ground are probably less than a half of the ecosystem’s total biomass; almost all of the fungal biomass is beneath the ground.

One of the world's largest organisms is a honey fungus (Armillaria mellea). From Wikimedia Commons

Some mycorrhizal fungi appear to only associate with certain plant species while others are less discriminating. About 80% of all plant species (including all trees) associate with mycorrhizae; the plants that don’t are the rushes, sedges, nettles, mustards, goosefoots and pinks. Some plants are so dependent on mycorrhizae that they can’t live without them: the orchids are one such group. While most mycorrhizal relationships appear to be mutualistic, with both partners benefiting from the interaction, many orchids appear to be parasitic on the fungi!

Plants in the mustard family like Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum) are some of the only species that do not associate with mycorrhiza.

Plants in the mustard family like Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum) are some of the only species that do not associate with mycorrhiza. © MM

The most parasitic orchids are the coralroots (Corallorrhiza spp.). These species are vascular plants that can no longer photosynthesize, as indicated by the fact that they are orange instead of green. Coralroot orchids parasitize mycorrhizal fungi, which form relationships with pine (Pinus spp.) trees. Thus all of the sugars the coralroot uses to fuel its growth come from the pine trees (via the mycorrhiza), and the water and minerals it needs come from the fungus (Zelmer and Smith 1995).

Striped coralroot (Corallorrhiza striata) parasitize both trees and mycorrhizal fungi. © MM

Mycorrhizae appear to help tree “parents” feed their offspring. In “The Hidden Life of Trees” the German forester Peter Wohlleben describes how sugars produced by large, adult trees in a forest are transferred through the mycorrhizae to the saplings, which are unable to access much light. In this way, young trees are provided with enough nourishment to stay alive until the adult tree dies and the young ones can obtain light for themselves. Resources are even transferred between trees of different species. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) were found to transfer nutrients to paper birch (Betula papyrifera) trees in the spring and fall when the birches had no leaves and the birches transferred nutrients to the firs in the summer when their leaves were shaded (Song et al. 2015). Wohllenben thinks that this happens because “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) trees exchange nutrients with other trees through mycorrhizal links. © MM

This is just the tiniest shred of what scientists know about mycorrhizae and new studies are being conducted all the time using new tools and analytical techniques. Next time you're out hiking in a forest remember this amazing invisible world under your feet!



Mycorrhizal Mushrooms

Have you ever wondered why the only fresh mushrooms you can get in stores are button, cremini and portabello (all different varieties and stages of Agaricus bisporus)? Or why the fancy mushrooms, like morels (Morchella spp.) and chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) are generally only available dried? And why are those dried mushrooms so expensive anyway? Can’t they just plant them in a field like wheat? To understand the answer to these questions, you need to know a few things about what mushrooms really are.

Morels are much loved edible, wild mushrooms.

Morels (Morchella sp.) are much loved edible, wild mushrooms. (c) MM

A long time ago scientists classified all organisms as either “plants” or “animals” largely based on whether they had a means of locomotion. For this reason, mushrooms (a.k.a. fungi), were classified as “plants”. Soon, however, scientists began to realize that fungi were not actually like plants at all: they produced spores instead of seeds, and most importantly, they weren’t green. Turns out fungi don’t produce their own food like plants do; they need to “eat” plants or animals-either living or deceased. In this way, they are actually more like animals.

Some fungi are parasites on plants, animals, protists or other fungi. You may be familiar with fungal crop parasites like corn smut (Ustilago maydis), rusts (e.g. Puccinia spp.), powdery mildew (e.g. Podosphaera spp.), ergot (Claviceps purpurea) or the infamous potato blight (Phytophthora infestans). In fact, some parasitic fungi even feed on people. Ever had jock itch (Tinea cruris), athlete’s foot (Tinea pedis) or a “yeast” (Candida albicans) infection? If so, a fungus was feeding on you. Gross!

Corn smut (Ustilago sp.) is a fungal parasite on corn plants. From Wikimedia Commons.

Corn smut (Ustilago sp.) is a fungal parasite on corn plants. From Wikimedia Commons.

Other fungi are what scientists call “saprophytes”. These are fungi that eat dead plants and animals, not living ones. The fresh mushrooms that you get in grocery stores have this habit. Mushroom farmers collect various crop residues or composted manure to “feed” their fungal colonies. The main body of the fungus, called “mycelium”, consists of thin root-like structures called “hyphae”. These hyphae grow through the compost, feeding on the nutrients. When certain hyphae meet at the right time they begin to form a reproductive structure, which is the “mushroom”. The purpose of the mushroom is to produce and release spores (which are similar to seeds) to colonize new habitats.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms are also commercially grown, albeit in a different way than button mushrooms: they grow on rotting hardwood trees, like oaks (Quercus spp.) instead of compost. This is why shiitatkes have a woody flavour to them. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are similar to shiitakes, growing on various deciduous trees, often poplar (Populus spp.). You can actually buy special kits to help you grow your own shiitake and oyster mushrooms!

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) taste a bit wood because they grow on wood!

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) taste a bit woody because they grow on wood! (c) MM

However, some fungi are what botanists call “mycorrhizal”, literally Latin for “fungus root”. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic associations with various wild plants, often trees. The hyphae wrap around plants’ roots and absorb some of the sugar that the plant produces via photosynthesis. In exchange, the fungus provides the tree with water and hard to get nutrients like phosphorus. So ultimately the relationship seems to be beneficial to both parties. Many of the wild mushrooms that we love are mycorrhizal and associated with conifers like pine (Pinus spp.): pine mushrooms (aka Matsutake) (Tricholoma matsutake), delicious milkcaps (Lactarius deliciosus) and porcinis (Boletus edulis). Chanterelles are associated with several species of conifers and deciduous trees. Truffles (Tuber spp.), on the other hand, prefer deciduous trees like oaks (Quercus spp.) and hazelnuts (Corylus spp.). Some morels (Morchella spp.) will grow on decaying organic matter like the button mushrooms but other species are mycorrhizal.

Delicious milkcaps (Lactarius deliciosus) are mycorrhizal associates of pine trees.

Delicious milkcaps (Lactarius deliciosus) are mycorrhizal associates of pine trees. (c) MM

So any attempt to cultivate these species would require growing a forest of appropriate tree hosts, inoculating the soil and hoping that they will eventually produce mushrooms. Although this sounds simple, there are many mysterious things going on in the soil that we barely understand and the factors that trigger mushroom production are one of them. In my next blog, I will be exploring some of the fascinating relationships between mycorrhizal fungi and Manitoba’s wild plants.


Legacies of Confederation: Endangered Orchids

When Manitoba became part of Canada in 1870 the stage was set for one of the largest land transformations in history. In the last 150 years nearly all of Manitoba’s wild prairies fell to the plough. The little patches that remain as ranch land, private nature preserves, and federal and provincial crown lands are home to a suite of increasingly rare organisms, among them two spectacular prairie orchids: Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara) and Small White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  Models of these two species are on display in the Manitoba Museums' Legacies of Confederation: A New Look at Manitoba History exhibit.

Found only in moist, tall grass prairies with calcium-rich or alkaline soils, the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid is one of Canada’s legally protected endangered species. The only place where it is found in Canada is at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Gardenton (http://www.gov.mb.ca/sd/wildlife/habcons/cwhp/tgp.html). Standing at almost a metre tall, this orchid produces an intoxicating fragrance to attract pollinating sphinx moths at night. The Canadian population is the largest in the world so its survival largely depends on our willingness to protect it.


The endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchid's largest population is in Manitoba.

Manitoba’s other endangered orchid, the Small White Lady’s-slipper, is a bit more widespread. It occurs at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve but there are also populations further west, near Brandon, and further north, close to Lake Manitoba. It is a bit more common in the USA but still rare over most of its range. It prefers moist prairies with calcium-rich soils. The Small White Lady’s-slipper attracts small bees in the spring with its delicate scent but does not offer a nectar reward so pollination is infrequent.

The Small White Lady's-slipper is an endangered species in Manitoba and Canada.

The Small White Lady's-slipper is an endangered species in Manitoba and Canada.

In addition to their very specific habitat requirements these orchids produce seeds that are so tiny that there is virtually no nutrition available for young seedlings. In order to grow they need to form an association with a special fungus, called a mycorrhiza, which will help them get water and nutrients from the soil.  The dependence of these two orchids on insect pollinators and soil fungus, along with the loss of habitat, has led to their endangerment.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when people thought that species extinction was impossible. Humanity underestimated the power that our technology gave us over nature, and to some degree we still do. A conservation ethic did not really emerge until it was clear that there were no “lost worlds” left where rare species might still linger. The extinction of several Canadian bird species including the Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), largely due to overhunting, finally made Canadians understand our destructive capabilities and helped inspire the modern wildlife conservation movement. One of the benefits of confederation has been our collective will to ensure that some of Canada’s forests, tundra, prairies, lakes and ocean habitats are protected for all Canadians to benefit from--the 2-legged and the 4-legged and even the ones with no legs at all.


Everything you know about taste is wrong

Tasting is something we do everyday but many of the things we think we know about taste are actually wrong. So let the debunking begin!

Myth #1: You taste food with your tongue.

Fact: Your sense of taste involves your tongue AND your nose. When you are sick with a cold, food doesn’t taste very good. This is not because your taste buds aren’t working-it is because your nose isn’t working. To test this, close your eyes, plug your nose and pop a flavoured candy in your mouth. Can you tell which flavour it is? Then unplug your nose and see if you know. What you are experiencing when you unplug is retronasal olfaction (or smelling the back of the nose). Many flavours in food are released as gases while you chew, which then waft into your nose through the back of your mouth. In fact 80% to 90% of what we “taste” is actually detected by your nose.

Myth #2: There are four basic tastes.

Fact: There are actually at least five tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Umami (Japanese for “pleasant, savory taste”) is probably the term you are unfamiliar with. Umami is the rich, earthy taste you get from foods containing natural glutamate such as seaweed, fish sauce, meat, mushrooms, aged cheese and even breast milk. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common additive used to add umami taste to food. Although umami was discovered by a Japanese chemist in 1908, it wasn’t accepted as a fifth taste (it was thought to be a flavour enhancer) until 2009 when glutamate receptors were discovered on the human tongue.

Mushrooms like this puffball (Lycoperdon spp.) have a distinct umami taste.

Mushrooms like this puffball (Lycoperdon spp.) have a distinct umami taste. (c) MM

Myth #3: The front of your tongue is where you taste sweet things and the back is where you taste bitter things.

Fact: All five tastes can be detected all over your tongue. You may have seen a taste map of the tongue in a text book or on the internet. But it is wrong. The taste map was created in 1901 by a German scientist who simply asked volunteers to indicate where certain tastes were strongest; not very scientific at all. Since then, detailed studies using modern equipment have found receptors for all five tastes all over the tongue. However, there are slightly more receptors for certain tastes in certain areas; bitter tends to be detected most strongly, but not exclusively, at the back of the tongue.

Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi), such as this one at the Montreal Botanic Garden, can have a bitter flavour that some people don't like. (c) MM

Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi), such as this one at the Montreal Botanic Garden, can have a bitter flavour that some people don't like. (c) MM

Myth #4: Artificial flavour doesn’t taste right because it has too many chemicals in it.

Fact: Artificial flavour doesn’t taste right because it has too FEW chemicals in it. I got into an argument once with another scientist over artificial strawberry flavour. I insisted that it didn’t taste quite right and he insisted that since it contains the exact same flavour chemicals as a real strawberry, it should taste exactly the same. Turns out we were both right. While artificial strawberry flavour does contain some of the chemicals that give a real strawberry its flavour, it doesn’t have all of them. Artificial flavour contains about 5 to 30 flavour and scent molecules but a real strawberry has over 300! The reason artificial flavour doesn’t have all those chemicals is because it would be too expensive to produce. So if you’ve never eaten a fresh strawberry right off the plant, artificial strawberry flavour might taste just fine to you. But to someone who grows strawberries in their backyard (that would be me) it doesn’t quite cut it. Plus it always reminds me of the taste of those fluoride treatments you get at the dentist!

Nothing tastes as good as a real wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.). Painting by Norman Criddle. H9-23-415 (c) MM

Nothing tastes as good as a real wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.). Painting by Norman Criddle. H9-23-415 (c) MM

Myth #5: Fruits are sweet and vegetables are bitter.

Fact: While it is true that many fruits contain sugar, some fruits are not sweet at all. Botanically speaking, a fruit is a structure that contains, or is attached to, one to many seeds-it has nothing to do with what it tastes like. Many things that we call vegetables are actually fruits including avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash. The taste of a fruit is influenced by the kind of animal that normally disperses it. Since some animals like juicy, bitter, sour or fatty tastes, not all fruits are sweet.

Vegetables (defined as roots, tubers, bulbs, stems and leaves) may be bitter due to the presence of toxins that discourage animals from eating them. However, humans have bred modern vegetables to be less bitter (and therefore less toxic). For example, wild carrot root is bitterer than modern varieties. Unfortunately, breeding out the bitter compounds (which are often natural pesticides) and increasing the sweet ones make our crop plants more desirable to insect pests.

Myth #6: Food tastes the same to everyone.

Fact: Everyone has a different number of taste buds; the number that you have controls the volume of your food. People with lots of taste buds (super-tasters) tend to dislike really bitter and spicy foods (because they taste louder) while people with fewer taste buds (non-tasters) may find them pleasant or stimulating. Black coffee and dark chocolate are two foods that non-tasters usually like and super-tasters dislike. Bitter vegetables like kale may also be disliked by super-tasters. This may explain, at least partly, why some people are picky eaters, although cultural factors are also extremely important. So the saying “everyman to his taste” is most certainly true.

Black coffee (Coffea spp.) is usually loved by non-tasters and disguised with cream and sugar by supertasters. Photo taken at the Montreal Botanical Garden. (c) MM


Drinking Christmas (trees, that is)

At the Museum’s recent Surviving the Apocalypse Night participants were asked a variety of questions about the nutritional value of certain foods. Sadly, very few people knew that you can make a beverage high in vitamin C from...Christmas trees!

In addition to being a popular Christmas tree, fir needles can be used to make a beverage high in vitamin C. ©MM

In addition to being a popular Christmas tree, fir (Abies spp.) needles can be used to make a beverage high in vitamin C. ©Manitoba Museum

The Indigenous peoples of North America have long known of the health-giving properties of some cone-bearing (also called evergreen) trees. In Canada, First Nations peoples drank an herbal tea of evergreen needles to ward off scurvy, usually in winter when fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to come by. This simple remedy was not known by early British and French explorers, who often succumbed to this disease. Scurvy causes weakness, gum disease, impairs healing and eventually leads to fever, convulsion and death. Symptoms set in after about a month of low to no vitamin C intake. The explorer Jacques Cartier was told about a scurvy remedy by the Indigenous people he encountered in eastern Canada, who felt pity for the suffering Europeans (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2647905/). Cartier was so impressed at the ability of the tea to cure scurvy that he called the tree species an "arbre de vie” or “tree of life”.

The plant used to make Cartier's tea may have been a cedar (Thuja spp.). ©MM

The plant used to make Cartier's tea may have been a cedar (Thuja spp.). ©Manitoba Museum

Evergreen needle tea is also high in vitamin A-which you need to prevent blindness-folic acid and minerals. The tea can be brewed by collecting the youngest needles on a tree (the ones right at the tip), coarsely chopping them, pouring boiling water over them and steeping for a few minutes. About a tablespoon of needles to a cup of water is about the right proportion. Although spruces (Picea spp.) are the most common trees used to make herbal teas, other cone-bearing trees including pine (Pinus spp.), fir (Abies spp.), cedar (Thuja spp.) and larch (Larix spp.) can also be used. I prefer to have it in a blend with some dried mint to add extra flavour.

Athough it bears cones Tamarack (Larix laricina) is not an evergreen; it looses its needles in the fall. ©MM

Although it bears cones tamarack (Larix laricina) is not an evergreen; it loses its needles in the fall. ©Manitoba Museum

On the east coast, European settlers began making an alcoholic version of this beverage by adding spruce needles to molasses (from the Caribbean) and yeast to make spruce beer. By 1738, George Spence, the Hudson's Bay Company surgeon in Fort Albany, Ontario, reported making and providing spruce beer to HBC employees as an anti-scorbutic (http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/viewFile/499/498). This knowledge was eventually passed on to the British Military by Sir Joseph Banks, who encountered the beverage when he was botanizing in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. Captain James Cook brought casks of this beer on board his ships in the late 1700’s (along with various other foods, such as citrus fruits) and did not lose a single man to scurvy!   If you’re so inclined, a recipe for spruce beer can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/allotment/2011/jan/06/allotments-gardeningadvice

Evergreen teas should be drunk in moderation (a cup of weak tea a day is probably fine) as large amounts are reported to be toxic. Pregnant women should NOT drink evergreen tea as it may cause a miscarriage. Yew (Taxus spp.) trees are really poisonous so make sure you can tell a yew apart from the other cone-bearing trees. Yews have flat needles with pointed tips and fleshy red fruits with a single seed in the middle instead of dry cones. They are not common in Manitoba and are shrubs usually less than 2 metres tall.

The toxic yew (Taxus spp.) trees have fleshy red cones not dry ones. By Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The toxic yew (Taxus spp.) trees have fleshy red cones, not dry ones. By Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Below is a simple identification key to Manitoba’s wild cone-bearing trees. To use it, select the statement (a or b) that best describes the plant. Continue selecting statements until you come to the name of a species. Then double check the identity by consulting a field guide or reputable website. Please note that there are some exotic cone-bearing trees planted in urban areas, which may not be in this key.

1a. Trees with scale-like, overlapping leaves……………….................Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
1b. Trees with needle-like leaves…………………………………………………………….........................................…...2

2a. Leaves in clusters of 2 to many…………………………………….……………………………….........................……...3
2b. Leaves borne singly.…………………….…………………………....……………………...………............................…….4

3a. Leaves in clusters of 10-40, deciduous; base of clusters without a sheath…..Tamarack (Larix laricina)
3b. Leaves in clusters of 2-5, evergreen; base of clusters enclosed in a sheath……….………Pine (Pinus spp.)

4a. Leaves 4-sided, not appearing 2-ranked, borne on short woody pegs.......................Spruce (Picea spp.)
4b. Leaves flat, appearing 2-ranked, not borne on woody pegs....................................................................5

5a. Leaves rounded or notched at the tip; bearing dry cones; bark grey and smooth or scaly…………….......….........................................................................................................................Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
5b. Leaves pointed at the tip; bearing reddish fleshy fruits with a single seed in the middle; bark reddish and shreddy………………………..............................................................………..Canada yew (Taxus canadensis)


Death caps, stinkhorns and honey mushrooms

Late fall is when a number of interesting Canadian fungi produce mushrooms. Some are edible, some are smelly and some are deadly. It was with great sadness that I read of the recent death of a 3-year old Canadian boy who ate a poisonous mushroom (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/death-cap-mushroom-victoria-boy-poisoned-1.3802245). It appears that he ate the most deadly species in the Amanita genus: the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), shown in the photo above in various stages of development (image from Wikimedia Commons). His unfortunate demise serves as a warning to anyone who is interested in foraging for wild mushrooms: be absolutely, 100% certain of the identity of any wild mushroom before you eat it. For starters, this means investing in some good mushroom field guides and books, and familiarizing yourself with the parts of mushrooms (e.g. cap, gills, veil etc.). Then you need to learn to identify not just the edible mushrooms in your area, but also the deadly ones they could be confused with. When foraging, carefully examine and cut through every mushroom, dig up the base, cut the gills to see if any latex leaks out, and make a spore print (a process that can take a few hours). The North American Mycological Association has good instructions on how to make spore prints (http://www.namyco.org/spore_prints.php), and lists some good books.

The poisonous Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is brightly coloured but not alll poisonous mushrooms are.

The poisonous Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is brightly coloured but not all poisonous mushrooms are. From Wikimedia Commons.

The fact of the matter is there are no reliable “rules of thumb” when it comes to identifying edible mushrooms. Many people mistakenly think that poisonous mushrooms are brightly coloured like the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) but many Amanitas are white, creamy or brownish. A veil on the stem and scales on the cap, other characters used to identify Amanitas, are not always present. Some mushrooms are edible only when they are young and cooked. However, cooking does NOT destroy all of the toxins in Amanitas. People may assume that poisonous mushrooms will taste bad but the last words of a man who died of Amanita poisoning were reportedly “that was the tastiest mushroom I ever ate”. And you can’t trust squirrels either; they can reportedly eat Amanitas without dying. The fact is, to the untrained, it is easy to confuse an Amanita with a number of edible species such as Button Mushrooms (Agaricus silvicola), certain Milkcaps (such as Lactarius volemus) or Puffballs (Lycoperdon) especially when they are young.

Young Amanita mushrooms may be confused with edible puffballs (Lycoperdon).

Young Amanita mushrooms may be confused with edible puffballs (Lycoperdon).  Cutting through the center can help you differentiate one from the other.

Amanitas are not the only poisonous mushrooms in North America (although none are as deadly as them). Other potentially poisonous genera include: Clitocybe, Collybia, Galerina , Gyromitra, Inocybe and some Russula and Lactarius species to name a few (see http://www.namyco.org/mushroom_poisoning_syndromes.php). Consuming alcohol with certain normally edible mushrooms (such as Coprinus) can also cause illness. Recent immigrants to Canada should be especially cautious when foraging as species that are poisonous here may look similar to edible species in their homeland. For example, the paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) looks very similar to death caps but the former species has pink spores while the latter has white ones. Paddy straw mushrooms are common in southeast Asia but are NOT found in Canada. Making things more complicated, there are a number of Amanita species that grow on other continents (including Africa and Europe) that are edible and could be confused with the poisonous North American ones.

The poisonous False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta) has been mistaken for edible Morels (Morchella spp.)

The poisonous False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta) has been mistaken for edible Morels (Morchella spp.)

One of the most common edible and prized mushrooms growing right now is the Honey Mushroom (Armillaria mellae). This species is actually a parasite on trees and is often found at the base of tree stumps. However, the similar Shaggy Scalycap (Pholiota squarrosa) grows in the same habitat but is poisonous, more so when consumed with alcohol (although usually not fatally) so pickers beware!

Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria mellae) are among the most popular edible fungi in the province. But beware the imposter...

Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria mellae) are among the most popular edible fungi in the province. But beware the impostor...

Shaggy scalycap (Pholiota squarrosa) looks similar but is poisonous!

...Shaggy Scalycap (Pholiota squarrosa) which looks similar but is poisonous!


Another interesting inedible species growing right now is the extremely smelly stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) fungus. A Museum volunteer recently brought me some specimens of this species and it really stunk up the room. Many of my colleagues thought it smelled tasty but I found the slight undercurrent of rotting flesh to be a bit overwhelming.


These stinkhorn fungi (Phallus impudicus) really stunk up my lab!

Mushroom hunting can be a fun and rewarding activity, not to mention tasty. Some people even make their livelihood from collecting certain wild mushrooms, like Morels (Morchella). But it is not an endeavor that should be taken lightly, as a mistake can cost you your life. The only way to safely collect mushrooms is to know how to identify them. Be smart and be safe!

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.