March 30, 2013

Photography for Purchase

Nearly all the photos you see on Flora montana are taken by me, Leah Grunzke, as I saunter and ramble around western Montana. Prints of these and many more are available for purchase.

Western Montana native flora...
 ...and insects...
...and birds...
 ...and wildlife...
...and landscapes...

...and so on, and so forth.
Native plant photography is labeled with date taken, location, genus and species wherever possible.  Looking for a particular species?  Let me know!  Chances are I've bumped into it along the way...hopefully, camera in hand.

High resolution, archival-grade prints are priced as follows, plus S&H:
*5x7" -       $8.00
*8x10" -     $12.00
*11x14" -   $25.00
*20x24" -   $65.00

Any of these prints is also available in a custom wood-block mount.
8x10" block mounts are priced at $40 plus S&H.
To see the full selection of available photos, click the slideshow on the righthand side of the screen.  For details on ordering, just email me at

March 29, 2013

Seven Steps to a Successful Morel Hunt

Every spring, the forests of western Montana and I have a standing date.  Planning begins almost a year in advance, as I keep an eye on the sky and my nose to the wind, waiting to find out...Where's the fire?
Because a fire there will be; it's almost guaranteed.  Drought conditions are a pretty reliable condition of summers here, especially in the last dozen years or so.  Besides, fire is a natural part of a healthy forest ecosystem, and a routine occurrence here in the semi-arid west.  My nose starts twitching round-about July, because where there's smoke there's fire, and where there's fire there's mushrooms.
Theories abound regarding why morels grow in burn areas.  As there seems to be no consensus on this issue, and any speculation leads us far into the depths of fungal physiology, let's just suffice it to say that the year after a medium-to-high intensity forest fire, you can expect to find a bumper crop of the illustrious Morchella species.  Folk wisdom tells us that the morels start fruiting when the Bluebells (Mertensia) are in bloom--depending on elevation, anywhere from May to early July.  Everything about morels rests on a fine balance. You need enough rain, but not so much they rot away.  Enough warmth, but preferably overcast days.  Enough fire, but not scorched barren earth.  The hunt for a perfect spot rests as much on intuition as it does on preparation.  Here's a bit of what I've learned over the years.   
1.  Go Early, Go Deep
Fire morels will continue to pop up the second and even third summer after the burn, but it pays to get right in there.  Around here, it's no secret that recent burns harbor fungal treasure troves.  Burns in easily accessible wilderness areas will quickly be overrun with pickers (and there's nothing more disappointing than stumbling on a prime patch, only to find footprints and stem-nubs).  You either have to get up there early, or be willing to hike the long haul and boldly go where no picker has gone before.  
Last year, I just had a near-vertical climb and this thunderous river crossing between me and super-secret mushroom paradise.  Had a hard time walking the next day.  Worth every penny. 
2.  Know Where to Look
No mushrooms here.  Too toasty.  I head for water (usually as simple as looking for deciduous shrubs in a forest of scorched conifers) then prowl the edges.  The ground is spongy, slick, black, often covered in a layer of needles.  The smell of ash and pine is intoxicating.  
As a general rule, where you find one, you'll find more.  The "mushroom" you see is just the fruit; the real substance is an interconnected underground web of mycelium.  Oftentimes you'll find them circling just outside the dripline of half-burned trees.  So indeed, head for the trees, but... 
3.  Don't Trust the Trees
Or anything else in a burn area, for that matter.  You'll often find yourself on steep hillsides, where instinct tells you to pull up on those sturdy-looking trunks for support.  Come to find out that trunk is no longer attached to any sort of base, and only serves to clunk you on the head before sending you tumbling down the mountainside like a snowball.  The spaces where trees used to be can be even worse.  Empty cavities where underground roots have burned away lie covered with forest litter like a pit trap, just waiting to twist your ankle.  There are also bound to be heavy rocks that are easily jogged loose from their soft, ashen beds.  No fun on a mountainside.  Dangerous business, this mushrooming.  And speaking of which... 
4.  Beware of Impostors
Morels are fairly easy to identify.  They look like a honeycombed sponge, they're hollow, and their cap is fused to their stem.  The two most likely lookalikes that might throw you off are the False MorelGyromitra esculenta 
and the Early MorelVerpa bohemica,
both of which are potentially toxic.  Best not to mess around with questionable fungi, as a good general rule of thumb. 
5.  Be a Smart and Considerate Harvester
This goes beyond the good practice of giving other pickers their space.  It's a harvest, not a raid.  There are a few simple techniques to ensure the patch you pick will keep producing in the future.  Never rake forest litter in search of buried mushrooms; this disrupts the soil and results in overharvesting.  Pluck the mushroom off just above soil-level (with your fingers, not a knife!), so as not to disturb the mycelial mat underground.  Don't pick really tiny mushrooms.  Tread lightly; compaction can be devastating to burn areas, especially when the soil is wet.  The goal is to cultivate future mushrooms by protecting the mycelium and encouraging spore dispersal.  You can scatter spores by using baskets to collect (as opposed to buckets or bags), and by leaving big gnarly specimens where you found them, free to live out their old age throwing spores to the wind.
6.  Don't get Caught with your Pants Down
Rules, rules, rules.  Morel hunting is so popular, there are a whole slew of regulations to keep it from running amok.  The rules vary according to region.  You'll definitely need landowners' permission, and you might need a permit on state land.  Last year, I got a free recreational permit from the Bitterroot National Forest offices, which allows us 5 gallons per day per person, up to 20 gallons for the season.  There are fees and different regulations for commercial permits. 
7.  Share the Bounty
To be honest, the thrill of the treasure hunt is the real reason I do this.  For me, finding the little camouflaged jewels in the burnt rubble far outweighs the feast that awaits.  But yes, they're delicious and earthy and wild-tasting, a forest delicacy teetering between primitive and oppulent.  Share them with friends.  It somehow improves the flavor. 
 Hill's Morel Mushrooms has a great summary of how to process and store your harvest.  Also visit this super-handy Inciweb site to follow active burn areas. This blog post was originally created for the Montana Natural History Center.  Click here to read the original post.  And with that, this stinky picker is beat.  Happy hunting to you all!  

March 14, 2013

Sagebrush Buttercup

Sagebrush Buttercup
Ranunculus glaberrimus
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
What's in a Name?  
The genus Ranunculus comes from the Latin word for frog (rana) because many species grow in wet places.  This species, however, is most often found in sagebrush steppe and on open pine forest floors  Glaberrimus means totally glabrous, or without hairs.

Quick ID:  
One of the earliest wildflowers; look for Sagebrush Buttercup blooming now through June in Missoula!  Plants are fleshy and 5-20 cm high (smaller than the similar native Mountain ButtercupRanunculus eschscholtzii).  Leaves are very smooth, round to three-toothed, clustered mostly at the base.  The shiny yellow flowers are about the size of a quarter.  It's sometimes confused with Silvery Cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), but they're easily told apart.  P. argentea has 5 pointy bracts alternating with its yellow petals and toothy, palmate leaves.

From BC to New Mexico and California east to the Dakotas.  Found in most parts of Montana (map)

Ranunculus is toxic to eat (including to horses and livestock), and can cause mild burning or blistering skin if handled.  The Okanagan-Colville Indians of the Pacific Northwest used sagebrush buttercups placed on a piece of meat as poisoned bait for coyotes, and rubbed flowers or whole plants on arrow points as a poison.  The toxin is unstable, and destroyed by boiling or drying.
Children all over the world play the "Do you like butter?" game, checking if the golden yellow flowers reflect off their pals' chins.  This sketch is from the Royal Academy Notes for 1889.  Some things never change.  

Wild gardening:
A cold-hardy perennial that brings early spring color; Sagebrush Buttercups need a sunny, well-watered spot.  Sources for seeds and plants may be hard to find, but worth trying.  The bright yellow petals secrete nectar, attracting an array of native bees and other pollinators.  They're also one of the first true heralds of spring, braving the still-icy winds as a promise of warm days to come.
This blog entry was originally created for the Montana Natural History Center.  Check out the original post here

March 4, 2013


Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Ericaceae (Heath Family)

What's in a Name?  
The scientific name of Bearberry is quite literal:  Arcto and ursi both mean "bear", while staphyle and uva indicate "grapes" (or berries).  Not surprisingly, bears are fond of this tiny fruit.  Also known as Kinnikinnick, from an Algonquin word meaning "item for mixing in" (to a smoking blend).

Quick ID:  
Look for Bearberry growing in dense, trailing mats along the forest floor.  It's one of our few broadleaf evergreens, with leaves that stay on all winter.  The paddle-like leaves are small (1-3 cm), leathery, and dark glossy green-turning reddish as winter moves in.  
Dainty pink-and-white flowers cluster in racemes at branch tips.  
Fruits are bright red, appearing in late summer and hanging on well into the winter.  

Found on well-drained foothill, montane, subalpine and alpine sites from Alaska to New Mexico.  Click here for MT range map. 

Bearberry has been used as a food source throughout history.  The berries are dry, mealy and bland.  Bearberry tea is widely used for many medical ailments, most notably for treating urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  However, ingesting too much can lead to constipation, and extended use has been linked to stomach and liver problems (esp. in children) and uterine contractions in pregnant women.
Bearberry leaves are high in tannin and can be used to tan hides.

Wild gardening:  
An excellent groundcover, particularly for dry sites and steep slopes.  It is tolerant of heat and cold (Zone 2-8), drought, and sun or shade.  Long-lived but slow-growing, Bearberry has no serious disease or pest problems.  Berries provide wintertime forage for birds and other wildlife.  Flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  The plant is a larval host for Rocky Mountain Clearwing (Hemaris senta) moths, Hoary Elfin (Callophrys polios), Brown Elphin (Callophrys augustinus), and Freija Frittilary (Boloria freija) butterflies.

This blog entry was originally created for the Montana Natural History Center.  Check out the original post here

March 3, 2013

Ponderosa Pine

Becoming deeply familiar with this tree, the most regal of pines, will almost certainly lead to a richer, more fulfilling life, and offer many new ways of seeing the world.
Ponderosa Pine
Pinus ponderosa
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Quick ID:  Luckily, ponderosas are pretty easy trees to pin down.  They're giant, regal evergreens with thick, straight trunks.  Branches of older trees are clustered toward the top, developing a distinctively massive bole (the part of the trunk below where the branches start).  A ponderosa's branches are relatively short for its stature, and turn up at the ends.  Needles are 5-10" long, in fascicles, or bundles, of 3 (sometimes 2 or 5 depending on the variety).
From a distance, it's easy to distinguish long-needled ponderosas from other, shorter-needled evergreens.    Up close, you can recognize them by their orange puzzle-piece bark with its deep black furrows.  Be sure to stick your nose into these crevices in spring and sniff the rich vanilla-scented sap running under the bark.
Like all Pinus members, the female cones are hard-scaled, as opposed to the soft paper-scaled cones of conifers like spruce (Picea).  They're armed with a poky prickle and open in fall to release tiny winged seeds.
According to the Utah Forest News, the oldest ponderosa in the world is in the Wah Wah Mountains, and is at somewhere around 940 years.  The National Register of Big Trees says the tallest (of the interior variety) is right here in Lolo National Forest and was 194' as of 1997. 

Range:  This is the most common pine in North America, and is widespread throughout the west, from BC to Mexico and east through the Black Hills.  It covers 38 million acres across 14 states.  Interior ponderosa is most common around 6000-8500', found randomly spaced in open grasslands at lower elevations, with stands becoming denser as elevation increases.  Check out the USDA range maps and some details on regional varieties here.

What's in a Name?  Ponderosa is also known as Western Yellow, Bull, Blackjack, Western Red, Sierra Brownbark, Heavy, and Western Pitch Pine.  According to Flora of North America"Its wood is more similar in character to the white pines, and it is often referred to as white pine. The taxonomy of this complex is far from resolved."  What we do know is this...  
1.  It was named for its heavy, "ponderous" wood in 1826 by the fascinating botanist David Douglas, from a specimen found near present-day Spokane.
2.  The common name "pine" (and genus Pinus) ultimately derive from the Sanskrit pituh, "juice, sap, or resin", the Greek pitys, "pine tree", and Latin pinguis, "fat".
3.  There are basically three varieties:  P. ponderosa var. ponderosa, found along the Pacific Coast, P. p.var. arizonica in the southwest, and the widespread interior variety, P. p. var. scopulorum (that's the one we have here in Montana, and the one I'm referring to in this post).  They differ in size and fascicle number, but also overlap in morphology and distribution, and vary by latitude.  As you can imagine...the taxonomy of this complex is far from resolved.
Ponderosa is the most commercially important timber tree in the west, and has played a huge role in the region's economic development since the early pioneer days.  The lumber was used intensively for building homes, railroads, telegraphs and mine bracing, and is still considered great for construction.  In 1949, the Montana Federation of Garden Clubs convinced the Legislature that the Ponderosa was the "King of the Forest".  It was adopted as the Montana state tree that same year, and we've all celebrated ever since.Equally important is P. pine's essential role in the ecology of western North America.  The behemoths create a mosaic of open stands filled with understory browse, interior woodland food and cover, and snags for cavity nesters and hunters.

Next time you're standing by one of these old trees, think about how incredibly well-adapted it is to the surface fires that naturally occur in this area.  The branches prune themselves up and out of reach.  Even then, the needles cluster tight around vulnerable growing branch tips, and open loosely farther up to discourage flames.  The bark is thick and insulative, as are the scales covering the buds.  The roots are deep, the size of lodgepoles themselves.  Regular low-intensity surface fire opens the canopy to light and burns up the thick layer of plant debris that builds up on the ground, encouraging graminoids (grasses) to germinate in the nutrient-rich, ashen soil.  It also thins out young trees, particularly the less fire-resistant ones.  It may go without saying that trees in crowded interior stands where fire has been suppressed are much more susceptible to catastrophic crown fires.  In the competition for space, they develop thinner bark and more compact foliage, and the closed canopy creates a dense understory of combustible "ladder fuels".
Anthropogenic factors like dense stands and stagnated nutrient cycling in the absence of fires, coupled with prolonged drought, have led to supreme stress on interior ponderosa ecosystems.  As a result, P. pine is susceptible to a slew of pests including Dwarf Mistletoe, insects like Pine and Bark Beetles (Dendroctonus and Ipsspp.) and wood decaying fungi like red rot and western gall rust.  The Forest Service has this to say:
"Besides unprecedented, large-acreage severe fires, other ecological consequences of fire suppression in interior ponderosa pine ecosystems include:

  • decreases in soil moisture and nutrient availability
  • decreases in spring and stream flows
  • decreases in animal productivity
  • increased concentrations of potentially allelopathic terpenes in pine litter
  • decreases in productivity and diversity of herbaceous and woody understory species
  • decreases in tree vigor, especially the oldest age class of pines, and
  • increased mortality in the oldest age classes of trees"

    The ecological changes in Ponderosa forests that have occurred in the last century as a result of fire exclusion, overstory logging and heavy grazing are a well-documented, fascinating and perhaps scary story that everyone in the west should be familiar with.  

Fire rolls through a Salmon River ponderosa pine stand in the River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

Wild Gardening
Despite the complicated (and controversial) state of ponderosa forest ecology, the fact remains the this pine is extremely well adapted to the soils, temperatures and moisture regimes of the west.  Try planting P. pine to establish windbreaks or as an impressive ornamental, if you have the space (they grow 60-150' in cultivation).  You can collect not-quite-open cones in late summer, and dry them on racks to release the seeds.  Sow your untreated seeds in late fall; you'll have better luck if you start them in containers before you put them out in the ground.  You'll be providing food and cover for all sorts of wildlife, and will be rewarded with the company of the most awe-inspiring of trees.
You can read an incredibly detailed and fascinating account of ponderosa ecology here.
This blog entry was originally created for the Montana Natural History Center.  Check out the original blog post here.