April 22, 2013

Currants and Gooseberries

Currants & Gooseberries
Ribes spp.
Grossulariaceae (Currant Family)
Quick ID:  
The many species of Ribes have a few things in common.  Look for deciduous shrubs with alternate, palmately lobed leaves growing along streams and on drier foothills.  The spicy-scented flowers can be white, pinkish or yellow, with petals fused into a tube at the base.  The ovaries are inferior-somewhat more rare in the plant kingdom than superior ovaries.  This basically means that the female part of the flower (that, once pollinated, will swell into a seed-bearing fruit) is located below where the petals and sepals are attached.  
Incidentally, inferior ovaries evolved later in plants; a protective measure to keep the important reproductive parts tucked away.  It's easy to see once the fruit starts forming, with the end result being a dry little spike where the flower once was, right at the end of the berry.
Ribes is a large genus; we have 14 species that are common throughout Montana.  The shrubs grow from three to over nine feet tall, spreading into a thicket through zealous new sprouts that spring from the roots.  The berries are prolific, ranging from shades of yellow, orange, and red to a purplish-black.  In general, gooseberries have prickles and currants do not.  Common names being fickle as they are, however, this is not always the case.
Cooking spiny gooseberries softens the thorns and makes them palatable.

Ribes are native to high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and can be found in every Canadian province and US state except Louisiana and Hawaii.  Europe and Asia also host several native species.  Click here to see distribution maps of different species. 

What's in a Name?
Over 2000 years ago, the Greek city Corinthe began growing and shipping a small dried grape (Uva corinthiaca) all over Europe.  The word "currant" is a corruption of "Corinthe"; it was incorrectly assumed that these Corinthian grapes were actually Ribes berries.  The misnomer stuck.  Ribes, in turn, derives from the Arabic or Persian word ribas, "acid-tasting".  The root of the family name, Grossularia, is a Latinization of the French word for currant, groseille.  And gooseberries, well...they just taste good when they're stuffed into a roast goose, according to old English custom.   

 Tidbits:  It comes as no surprise that this useful berry has such a long and vivid history.  North American tribes used currants and gooseberries for summer and winter sustenance, as treatment for ailments ranging from toothaches to kidney disease to snakebites, and as a seasonal signal for when to plow and plant corn.  Gooseberry thorns were used to remove splinters and apply tattoos.  It was believed that Ribes growing alongside streams was an indicator of fish, and that sprigs of the plant placed in cribs kept babies happy. Lewis and Clark were delighted with the three species of Ribes they discovered on their travels along the Missouri River:
         wax currant (R. cereum)
         sticky currant (R. viscosissimum)
         and golden currant (R. aureum).

Golden currant is perhaps the most well-known and widespread.  Today, currants are generally thought of as a tasty berry.  Indeed, all Ribes fruits are edible, but they can be sweetly juicy, puckery tart, dry and seedy, or just plain weird tasting.
Currants are host to the first stage of blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), a fungus that's harmless to Ribes but deadly to five-needled pines.  Blister rust was introduced to the US from Europe around 1900, and through the 1950s there was a massive (unsuccessful) Ribes eradication effort which included a ban on commercial production.  Today, currants are only produced commercially in Greece and South Africa.

Wild gardening:
Ribes offer early spring flowers (April-May), bright summer berries and bold fall colors.  They're easily propagated by their offshoots, which can be tugged out of the ground, snipped off along with some stringy roots and popped in the ground as is.
As with all new plantings, give them plenty of water the first season to establish a healthy root system, and within three years they'll start bearing fruit.  They are happy in sand or clay, sun or part shade, standing water or drought.  Trim suckers diligently to keep a tidy, compact shrub, or allow to naturalize into a thicket haven for wildlife.  Here at the Nature Adventure Teaching Garden at Fort Missoula, Golden Currant fills out a native bed, along with Western Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Prairie Junegrass (Koelaria macrantha) and Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).
Currants fill an important niche by providing an early-season nectar source for bees and hummingbirds, particularly the Rufous and Calliope in western Montana.  For more info on nontraditional pollinator plants, check out this excellent article from Montana Wildlife Gardener  The berries are a source of food for birds, black bears and rodents, while the abundant leaves are an important browse for deer and elk in the wild.  

April 20, 2013

Wild House of Bees - An introduction

Wild House of Bees: "The Prototype"
I think I've finally got it.  The past few months I've spent more hours than I can count thinking about bees.  Reading about bees.  Dreaming about bees.  Trying to build a perfect little bee house...a Wild House of Bees...and I think I can finally say, I like how they're shaping up.  A lot.  First things first though...

This is NOT a house for HONEYBEES!
Honeybees look like teddybears dunked in honey
Nope!  The honeybees we're all so familiar with (Apis mellifera) originally come from Europe, and were introduced to North America in the early 1600s.  There are thousands of species of bees native to North America.  Some are bumblebees (Bombus sp.), which nest in social colonies in the ground.  But the majority are "solitary bees"...mason bees, leafcutters, sweat bees, carpenter bees, masked bees and so many more.  These wild bees don’t form hives, don’t make honey, and rarely, if ever, sting.  Having no hive to defend, no honey stash to protect, makes for a very docile little bee.
The females build nests in cavities (holes in the ground, in dead twigs, or hollow stems) and are important pollinators of native plants, fruit trees and early-season crops.

How does wild beekeeping work?
In spring and summer, females need to find sheltered cavities to nest in.  Different species like different types of cavities.  Some love to dig into the mud, others like a perfectly sized tube to crawl in.  Here they’ll deposit eggs, along with a little food (pollen) for the growing larva, in cells lined with mud or leaves. When the larvae hatch, they spin a cocoon and get to munching on that pollen stash.  The young bees will spend the winter nestled in these cells, and emerge in spring to mate and build their own nests.  This is a nesting cavity we found in the wild, in a hollow milkweed stem...
 Crawl in a tube, lay a little egg, stash a little bit of pollen, pack it with mud, repeat.  
As more and more wild places are replaced with houses and parking lots, native bees are having a harder time finding places to nest.  The Wild House of Bees provides a perfect bundle of nesting tubes that you can hang right in your backyard.  Every few years, you can remove the back mounting board of your bee house to clean out or replace the tubes.  This will help discourage parasites and other bee pests.  You can gather your own hollow-stemmed plants, or order a new bundle here.
What else do bees need to stay HEALTHY?
*Food:  Native bees like lots of flowering plants around to collect pollen and nectar from.  Bees are attracted to yellow or blue/purple flowers that are open like a blanketflower...
or have little tubes like a penstemon.
*Water:  A source of water is important in our dry climate.  Also make sure there is some mud around; many bees will use it to build their nest cells.
*Shelter:  Try to keep your bee house out of heavy rain and winds.  Hang it about 5 feet off the ground, facing south or east toward the warm sun.

The tubes of your Wild House of Bees are 6" deep, and come from a variety of hollow- or pithy-stemmed locally gathered plants.  I try to use invasive weeds like Fuller's teasel and Japanese knotweed when I can; it's pretty cool when I can tie weed eradication into pollinator conservation so nicely.  The holes range from 1/10 to 1/2" to encourage a variety of bee species to nest here, but most of them are exactly 3/8", the perfect size for mason bees (aka blue orchard bees, Osmia lignaria, the poster child for native bees).  You'll see the mud-capped tubes of mason bees forming in early spring.  Later in summer, other tubes will start to be capped with leaves.  These are the leafcutter bees, Megachile sp.  Who know what else will move in?!  I'm always hoping a solitary wasp will come along and fill the tube with paralyzed spiders.  Backyard ecology is so fun to watch.

So...why be a wild beekeeper?
*Conservation!  By wild beekeeping, you replace nesting sites lost due to habitat destruction, and help conserve our native biodiversity
Blue mason bees have the cutest buns...
*Pollination!  As honeybee populations decline, we rely more on wild bees for pollination.  That means more flowers, more food, and a healthier environment for everybody
*Observation!  Watching wild bees nest year after year is endlessly fascinating, and a great way to learn about local plant and insect ecology.

There's so much to learn about wild bees!  Click here for a handy collection of what I've found to be the most compelling, entertaining and useful resources for wild beekeepers.  To learn more about Wild House of Bees, visit my Frequently Asked Questions page.

Visit Flora montana on Etsy to order your own
Wild House of Bees!

~Happy Bees, Happy World~

April 17, 2013

Missoula Resources

Our little town has a ton of resources when it comes to wildlife gardening, pollinator conservation and nature education.  I thought it might be helpful to gather up a list, all here in one place, handy dandy.  For those of you in the Missoula area, this is for you.  There are, of course, MANY resources out there dedicated to a larger region or more general audience, but for now I'll try to stick to the ones close to home that I know and love so well...so, I present to you...

Helpful People, Places and Organizations for the Wildlife Gardeners, Nature Lovers and Lifelong Learners of Western Montana 

Native Plants and Garden Supplies
Native Ideals Seeds
Tear up that turfgrass!  The flora of western Montana is incredibly diverse and perfectly suited to grow in our temperamental climate.  Plants native to this region are lower maintenance, will save you on your water and fertilizer bills, and provide food, shelter and nesting sites for backyard wildlife and pollinators.  Most are easy to grow, and will add colorful cheer to your landscape all year long.  Marchie's on South 3rd carries a selection of native plants, as does Caras Nursery.  If you're looking for a place that specializes in natives try:
Blackfoot Native Plants-Kathy Settevendemie's nursery is up in the Potomac, and well worth the trip.  Good blog too.
Native Ideals Seed Farm-Bryce and Rebecca's beautiful farm in the Jocko Valley.  You can find their seeds in retail stores and markets all over Missoula; you'll know them by Courtney Blazon's awesome artwork.
Getting out of town a bit, Southwest Montana Native Landscapes is Catherine Cain's absolutely delightful nursery near Dillon.  I've also heard of Nature's Enhancement in Stevensville, and Windflower Native Plants in West Glacier, but haven't had a chance to visit yet.
Also visit the Naturalist's Mercantile in downtown Missoula.  This new and much-needed shop offers all kinds of goods for nature watching and wildlife study, including a great selection of birding supplies.

Building Materials
So you've got your plants, your seeds are ready to go, and now it's time to do some hardscaping.  Build a winding little path around some raised beds.  Or a birdhouse.  Or a greenhouse.  Your first stop should be Home Resource, the building materials re-use center, where you can usually find anything you need for your projects, and a million things you didn't know you needed besides.  I also like to support Mark VanderMeer's Bad Goat Forest Products, which is dedicated to sustainable forestry practices, and just a great crew to work with.  Pacific Steel & Recycling is a good place to get scrap metal to play with, and they support a whole slew of charitable organizations in the community too.  Of course, you can also go to Ace, Murdoch's, Home Depot or Lowe's as well.  And check out Boyce Lumber if you're looking for something special.  They were the only place in town that carried the cedar shakes I was looking for.  The only place, can you believe it?


So many markets!  All year long!  Whether you're looking for plants and seeds, garden art, or like-minded folks to spin yarns with, the market is always a good bet.  The mainstay is the downtown Missoula Farmers Market, which runs Saturdays and Tuesdays in the summer.  Right next door is the Missoula Saturday Market of arts and crafts, more popularly known as the People's Market, where you can soak in all the creativity and inspiration western Montana has to offer.  Also on summer Saturday mornings is the Clark Fork River Market at Caras Park, which has the usual fruits-and-veggies farmers market fair, plus local meats, lots of prepared foods, baked goods, some crafts, live music...and mini donuts.  Nom nom nom nom nom.  Caras Park also hosts the Carousal Sunday Market, which is smaller, runs a little later, and is and waaaay less crowded (which suits me just perfect).  If you don't want to come all the way downtown, the Orchard Homes Farmers Market (Thursdays) and Target Range Farmers Market (Sundays) serve the west side of town.  And don't let winter scare you!  The Missoula Winter Market at Mullan & Broadway runs Fri-Sun, October to April, and the Heirloom Winter Market is held Saturdays at the Fairgrounds.  There's also the Missoula MADE Fair, held once each summer and again around Christmas.  The MADE Fair is masterfully put together by Carol Lynn Lapotka of REcreate Designs, and features hundreds of artisans...the best of what Western Montana has to offer.

"Missoula has more non-profits per capita than anywhere else in the country," goes the saying.  While I'm not sure that that's exactly true, I do know that we have a TON of incredible organizations that work their asses off to make this community a healthier, happier and safer place.  A few that might help you out on your wildlife gardening adventure:
Montana Native Plant Society-Missoula is in the Clark Fork Chapter.  They have lots of field trips and learning opportunities and really knowledgeable folks who just love botany.  What more could you want? 
Montana Natural History Center-Dedicated to nature education, MNHC offers workshops, naturalist courses, field trips, a cool exhibit room, kids summer camps, and more.  They also do a lot of work with the schools, training the next generation of nature rompers.  A great place to volunteer...help out on a field trip, or a discovery day, or a bird count, and learn something while you give back.  It'll make you feel awesome.
Five Valleys Audubon has a bunch of cool volunteer and learning opportunities.  It's a great way to take part in citizen science, monitoring nest sites or counting migratory birds.  They lead field trips all summer long.
Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) is the sustainable living organization that's been around forever.  They have a great demonstration site on the Northside where you can take workshops on anything from brewing beer to strawbale construction to car maintenance.  Another excellent place to volunteer.  Members get access to the Truck Share program and the Tool Library, where you can borrow pretty much any tool you can think of.  Sweet deal. 
Missoula Butterfly House is a relatively new insectarium, and has been making a really great impression so far.  They're all about community education, and a great place to learn about pollinators, insect ecology and the endlessly fascinating world of bugs.
Missoula Children & Nature Network is dedicated to building lifelong connections with nature for kids who, with their jam-packed schedules and computers and whatnot, are all-too-often cut off from the natural world.  This is a good place for families to learn about nature exploration opportunities in the community.

With millions of online resources to choose, sometimes the problem is not a lack of information, but rather so much coming at you that it's impossible to wade through.  As far as wildlife gardening and nature study in western Montana, these are the places I find myself coming back to:
Plant Identification:  Missoula's own Peter Lesica wrote the book on the botany of western Montana.  Literally.  He really is the premier authority on the flora of this region, and his Manual of Montana Vascular Plants is dense and thick with taxonomical gold.  But for the casual floraphile, it might be a little heavy. Montana Plant Life is my go-to for plant ID online.  I wish I could figure out who's behind it.  Easy to search, good pictures, good taxonomical info, as well as edibles and medicinals, poisonous plants, weeds, etc.  The list isn't super extensive, but it's a good starting place.  I have a feeling they don't keep the "proper" currently accepted latin names up to date, but you know what?  Neither do I.
I also use the Montana Field Guide, although I find their photos pretty lacking.  When I want to REALLY get to know a plant, I look at the USDA Forest Service species profile.  It's concentrated on wildfire effects, but includes pages and pages of pretty much every single natural history detail you could ever want to know about the species in question.  Fascinating stuff.  The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center out of Austin is another go-to for wildflower gardening, although it doesn't focus solely on Montana plants.  Also check out this handy Pollinator-friendly Plant List made for Montana gardeners.  And of course, learning about plants means learning about weeds, and the Montana Weed ID page is a good place to start.  Also pick up a copy of Weeds of the West; it's an excellent reference book with helpful pictures.
The Northern Rockies Natural History Guide is a fun online field guide to the plants and animals of this region.  If you want a hard copy field guide, Lone Pine makes the best ones (at least for plants.  Sibley is the one for birds, and Kaufman for insects, in my opinion.  But everyone has their favorites!  Seriously, though.  Lone Pine.)
And speaking of birds, I'm addicted to this WhatBird site.  Find a bird you want to identify, and they help you narrow it down until you've got it.  So easy, so fun.
If you want to learn about our fungal community, check out Montana Mushrooms and the Western Montana Mycological Association.
If you want to learn about our wild bees, go to the MSU Extension Native Bee Guide or the Montana Bee Identification Guide.  Or check out my post on Resources for the Wild Beekeeper, of course!
And while this relates more to growing veggies than native plant gardening, I have to mention the Bokashi Composting that Mike Dalton is doing up in Great Falls.  It's...just...I can't even tell you how cool this stuff is.  Go to his "Gardens from Garbage" page and you'll be hooked.
And finally, if you want an all-around excellent overview of wildlife gardening in Missoula, I cannot recommend David Schmetterling's Montana Wildlife Gardener blog highly enough.  David and his wife, my friend and mentor Marilyn Marler, have created an urban jungle in their small residential yard, teeming with native plants and wildlife.  David's blog is funny, super smart, and chock full of projects that will delight and inspire you.  David and Marilyn also do personal garden consultation through Butterfly Properties Garden Coaching, providing professional advice and expertise focused on creating sustainable landscaping that supports local biodiversity and water conservation.  They're a dream team, and come highly recommended.

So there you have it!  Compiling these resources in one handy spot is an ongoing process, so please, if you have any favorites that I left out, let me know!  We're lucky to live in such a vibrant, energetic community, and with all the awesome stuff people are doing out there, I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.  

~Missoula's Official Ambassador~


April 14, 2013

Blue-eyed Mary

Blue-eyed Mary
Collinsia parviflora
Scrophulariaceae (Figwort Family)

Quick ID:  
The hard part isn't being able to identify Collinsia, but being able to spot it in the first place. The flowers are tiny, rarely more than a few millimeters across.  Luckily they're often found growing in groups, on relatively bare ground.  Look for little snapdragony-type flowers growing on red, hairy stems with narrow linear leaves.  The entire plant is just a wisp, really, and a mass of them blanketing the ground is a real springtime delight.
Delightful though they may be, they are also notoriously hard to photograph.  Here, Blue-eyed Marys dot the foreground along with Larkspur, Shooting Star, Biscuitroot and Woodland Star.  Kootenai Creek tumbles below the hillside.

You'll find Collinsia in moist, shady forests, often growing where other plants are sparse, and on sunny slopes early in the season.  Its large range extends throughout the southern parts of Canada, south to Texas and east to Colorado.  In Montana, it's mostly found in the southern and western parts of the state.

What's in a Name?
Who is this Mary lady?  There have been a few rather famous Marys throughout history (it was the #1 most common name in 1900, and still remained there as of 1990), so I guess the mystery isn't quite as intriguing as if the plant was called...say, Blue-eyed Leah, but still.  It seems the origin of this particular moniker is lost to us; I certainly can't find any mention of it.
Scientific names are much easier to track down.  Collinsia is named in honor of Zaccheus Collins, VP of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences around the turn of the 19th century.  Thomas Nuttall named the genus after him, and David Douglas named the species in 1827.  The Latin word parvus means small-in this case, small flowers (parviflora).  There are 19 species of Collinsia, including one with "giant" flowers, aptly named C. grandiflora.
Now, I've read that members of the Scrophulariaceae family (scrophs, we call them) are named for scrofula, which they're supposed to cure.  Scrofula is an archaic word for certain kinds of tuberculosis, which are spread through unpasteurized milk (the Latin scrofule meaning "brood cow").  But according to Borrors awesome Dictionary of Root Words and Combining Forms, scrophul- means a tumor or glandular swelling.  And lo and behold, scrophs have also been used to treat hemorrhoids...which in the olden days were known as "figs" --hence the common name "figwort family" (wort generally meaning "a plant"). 
!!! Crazy stuff, I tell ya what.   

Tidbits:  Other Scrophs include penstemon, snapdragons, paintbrush, foxglove and monkeyflower.  All have characteristic corollas (petal arrangements) with upper and lower "lips".  In Collinsia, the upper lip is usually lighter than the dark blue lower lip.
There are brief mentions of Blue-eyed Mary being used by the Kayenta Navajo as a "plant to make horses run fast", and Ute tribes used it externally on sore flesh.
Wild gardening:
Collinsia is one of those sought-after plants that enjoys shade and can tolerate shallow soil.  It also has a long bloom season (Apr-July) and will establish and spread easily if there's not too much competition from surrounding plants.
This is an annual plant; it grows from seed produced the previous season rather than surviving by underground storage structures.  You can start collecting seeds (a somewhat tedious endeavor) in late May, and sow them outdoors in the fall.
This is a great example of how wild gardening conveniently mimics natural systems.  Plants drop their seeds in the fall, and wait for spring moisture and temps to be right for germination.  You can do the same thing.  It takes the guesswork out of the equation, and the plants will thank you for it.  Come spring, you can sit back and enjoy the show.  

April 7, 2013

Nine-leaved Desert Parsley

Nine-leaved Desert Parsley
Lomatium triternatum
Apiaceae (Parsley Family)

Quick ID:  
Look for Nine-leaved Desert parsley blooming now in dry, open sites around Missoula (check out the face of Mt. Sentinel, or low on Waterworks).  It's a small herbaceous perennial with yellow clumps of flowers, growing low to the ground.  The leaves, which smell like parsley, are delicate wisps, deeply divided into long strings that always remind me of veins. 

Cous (pronounced "cowse") Biscuitroot
Lomatium is highly typical of the charismatic Apiaceae family:  deeply dissected, aromatic leaves and big chunky taproots.  Remind you of a carrot?  Our other native Lomatiums -Fern-leaved Desert Parsley (L. dissectum) and Cous Biscuitroot (L. cous) - show the same basic characteristics.
Fern-leaved Desert Parsley in fruit

The clumps of flowers (aka inflorescences) of Apiaceae are known as "umbels" and resemble an upside-down umbrella, with many short flower stalks (called pedicels) arising from a common point.  Think of the familiar umbels of flowering dill in your herb garden.  
File:Daucus carota May 2008-1 edit.jpg
Daucus carota (Queen Anne's Lace) displays a quintessential umbel infloresence
Common throughout the northwest, east to the Dakotas.  Click here for MT range map

What's in a Name?  
Lomatium is the diminutive of the Greek root Loma, "border, fringe" in reference to its winged fruits (similar to those of Lomatium macrocarpum, pictured here.  Ternatum is a Latin term meaning "in clusters of three", thus, triternatum gives us the three threes of nine-leaved desert parsley. Also frequently called "Biscuitroot."
<EM>Lomatium cous </EM>(S.Wats.) Coult. & Rose - collected by C.V. Piper 2341, Walla Walla, WA, 15 July 1896

All species of Lomatium are edible, but not to be confused with their extremely poisonous cousins, the Hemlocks (Cicuta and Conium species).  The tuber-like root tastes a bit like sweet parsnips, and can be dried and ground into a flour for biscuits and bread.  It was a staple food for Lewis and Clark, who knew it as chappalell according to their May 1806 journal entries:
"This plain as usual is covered with arromatic shrubs, hurbatious plants and a short grass...there is one which produces a root somewhat like the sweet pittaitoe."
"This root they collect as early as the snows disappear in the spring and continue to collect it untill the quawmash supplys it's place which happens about the latter end of June"...

Wild gardening:  An early spring wildflower with high drought tolerance and low fertility needs.  Members of the Apiaceae family are great companion plants, attracting ladybugs, parasitic wasps and predatory flies that prey on insect pests.