July 25, 2013

Red Baneberry

Red Baneberry
Actaea rubra
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
Quick ID:  
Look in rich, moist thickets and shaded forests for this striking, relatively uncommon plant.  It can grow up to three feet high, with flowers appearing in early to mid-summer as fluffy clusters atop tall stalks.  The white flowers have lots of antenna-like stamens that wave out past the small petals.  Soon, the flowers fade and stalks of bright red berries take their place.
The species and subspecies of Actaea are closely related and not always easy to distinguish.  There is a white baneberry (A. pachypoda), but the red baneberry species (A. rubra) sometimes bears white fruit as well.  True white baneberries have thicker pedicels (flower-bearing stalks) than the "red" species.  You can recognize Actaea berries by the little buttons on their ends.  The white berries, with their pupil-like spots, have been used in the past as eyes for children's dolls, hence one of the common names for the plant, "Doll's Eyes".  Kind of creepy looking, if you ask me.   
Found through the northern temperate zones of North America and Eurasia.  In Montana, it's most likely to be spotted in the southern and western parts of the state (see the USDA range map)
What's in a Name?
The family name Ranunculaceae comes from the Latin rana, frog, in reference to its members' affinity for wet places.  Actaea is the Latin name for a generally strong-smelling plant.  The Greek aktea is the word for the elderberry tree (Sambucus sp.), whose leaves the baneberry resembles.  Rubra is a ubiquitous species name meaning "red".  The common name "baneberry" refers to its toxicity--bane ultimately comes from the ancient root gwhen-, "to murder or wound".
You might also hear baneberry called red cohosh, necklaceweed or snakeberry.    
All parts of this plant are poisonous, with the toxin protoanemonin most concentrated in the berries and roots.  Symptoms include "the usual"--vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, stomach cramps--but the toxin ultimately acts on your heart, and can cause circulatory failure.  So don't eat it!  That said, people have been eating this plant for thousands of years.  North American Indian tribes have used a decoction of the roots to treat rheumatism, coughs and colds, and to improve the appetite.  It is said to increase milk production after childbirth, and decrease excessive menstrual bleeding.  A poultice of chewed leaves was used to soothe wounds, and there are several references to it being ingested to soothe stomach pains caused from swallowing hair. (Huh?)  But once again, unless you're a trained professional, please, don't eat it.  Eating as few as two berries can cause severe pain, and a few more can mean respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
Baneberry is not, however, poisonous to livestock.  Sheep and horses will graze on it when there's not much else around, and elk will eat the foliage in the fall (Actaea foliage stays green late in the season, after most plants have withered in the frost).  Birds like Grouse, Gray Catbird (seen here), and American Robins also relish the berries, as do mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles.

Wild Gardening:
Despite its murderous name, baneberry makes an excellent woodland garden perennial.  The foliage is lush, the flowers and fruit are highly ornamental, and it can take part to full shade.  It provides cover for small mammals and will attract songbirds to your yard.  Plants are not hard to find at nurseries, particularly those specializing in natives.  If you do decide to try propagating from seed, remember that, like many wildflowers, they need a period of cold stratification before they'll germinate, and it might take two seasons to get them to sprout.  Naturalize along with other moisture-loving species like twinberry, horsetail, thimbleberry, sedge, alder and aspen for a lush, verdant woodland garden.

July 8, 2013


Scrophulariaceae (The Figwort Family)

What's in a Name?
It's most often told that "penstemon" is from the Greek for five stamens,  but the word may actually be derived from the Latin for "almost a thread (stamen)," in reference to it's sterile fifth "staminode".  And while the new family, Plantaginacea (more on all this later...), is from Plantago (L. "plantain"), the Scrophulariaceae family has a much more interesting naming story.

Now, a word about names.

Am I allowed to love etymology and loathe taxonomy?
Meriwether Lewis' 1806 specimen 
I remember when I started to learn botanical Latin; how the whole world opened up in a new way.  I love the roots hidden in the names of plants, and the puzzles.   In them, we can hear the real words of Pliny and Virgil and Theophrastus. Cornus. Acer. Betula. Salix.  There's Greek and Latin, medieval history and ancient mythology. Calypso. Achillea. Hypericum. Traditional languages and foods and medicines. Poisons.  Camassia. Lavandula. Apocynum. Many names are metaphorical, a poetic interpretation of the plant.  Echinops. Pteris. Ipomoea.  We learn their color, their parts, the way they hold themselves, where they come from and how they grow.  The way they taste. Ranunculus. Sylvestris. Aquilegia. Saccharum.  We learn who has stolen the botanist's heart.  Aloysia. Luciliae.  Many were named during the surge of scientific curiosity that marked the Age of Enlightenment, when botanical exploration was much more harrowing than it generally seems today.  The explorers who "discovered" and documented and named these North American species often had epic, adventurous times doing so, and the tales of their expeditions are full of drama, danger and mystery.  Charles Darwin and Lewis and Clark are famous for their discoveries, but there are tales to tell in all the lives of David Douglas, Thomas Nuttall, John Lindley, John Charles Fremont, William Baldwin, William Darlington, Frederick Pursh, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Torrey, Archibald Menzies, John Bartram...and so many others.  There's a lifetime of stories behind these plant names, and I tend to grow attached to them.  They're part of my story too, of my growing and learning and exploring my own world.
I learned the Penstemon species when they were in the Scrophulariaceae family, as they have been for 150 years.  For me, penstemon is the poster-child scroph, with its puckered, pouty lips.  In my heart, this is where they belong, alongside the monkeyflowers and blue-eyed marys.  But while the sport of taxonomy is full of mysteries and stories of its own, it's also a notorious pain in the ass.  Full of unpronounceable, impossible to remember words that are always changing. For a word-romantic like myself it could be maddening, if not for this simple, secret coping mechanism:  I just ignore it.  It's very un-scientific of me, I know, and very stubborn.  But as far as I'm concerned, penstemons are figworts and not plantains and in my heart of hearts, there they shall remain.  Molecular phylogenies be damned.
Quick ID
There is a bit of variation in this genus, but the flowers are distinct.  Most are shades of purple, some leaning more towards blue or pink (even red).  White flowers are pretty common too, and there are a couple of yellow species.  All have five petals, fused into a tube at the base and flared out into two upper and three lower lips at the ends.  Inside the tube you'll find five stamens--one sterile (the staminode), the other four bearing anthers.  The plants are usually anywhere from 3" to 30" tall, some woodier than others, with simple, opposite leaves growing in clusters near the base of flower stalks.

Penstemon is the largest genus of flowering plants in North America with over 270 species.  Thirty-six of them are listed in Montana, with many of these designated as "species of concern" and only found in very localized areas.  They are also commonly called beardtongues.  Flowers in the genus Keckiella, found in the southwest, are also commonly known as penstemons or beardtongues, and are actually the progenitors of the Penstemon genus we have today. The ones I encounter most often in western Montana are Wilcox (P. wilcoxii), small blue (P. procerus) and fuzzytongue (P. eriantherus).  They're easy to tell apart, although you might encounter plants that look very similar to each that are a different species entirely.
In general, Wilcox penstemon is the classic, tall, super showy blue-lipped flower that you see all over rocky slopes just about the time the larkspur are beginning to fade.  They form basal rosettes of glabrous (hairless), narrow eye-shaped leaves, a couple inches long, that tend towards a reddish-purple edge.  Flower stalks generally reach ~12-18", but can be over two feet tall if the plants have access to more water.  The flowers are light-bluish to deep purple and are just stunning.
The small-flowered, somewhat woody Penstemon procerus is also common, with its stalks standing at attention.  You'll find this one in wetter places like meadows and gullies.  The plants and individual flowers are about 1/3 - 1/2 the size of the larger Wilcox variety, and tend to be darker shades of purple.  The leaves are also much more narrow and lanceolate.

Fuzzytongue penstemon is a knockout--one of my all-time favorites.  It's soft, small, and has a mesmerizing flower.  The tube formed by the petals is cavernous and very mouthlike, with the four anther-bearing stamens curved like fishbones around the bearded tongue of the fifth sterile stamen.  They grow in the toughest of conditions, on the driest, highest, windiest mountains.  They're incredible.

Wild Gardening

Penstemon is a snap to grow and propagate, thriving in difficult soils, drought and heat.  The many-seeded fruit capsules are easy to collect.  When the capsules start to split open the seeds are ready; just cut off the stalks and collect them in paper bags.  These plants need cool moist stratification to germinate, so either sow seeds outdoors in fall, or in pots that will be left outside for the winter. Once the leaves are up they transplant well, and are perfect rock garden specimen plants for an early summer show of color.  And the bees adore them.  I've spent many hours in my backyard watching the hubbub of activity around the Wilcox' penstemon in particular.  On a sunny afternoon, you're guaranteed to find dozens of native bees happily dipping their heads into each purple tube for a sip of nectar.
For a ton more information on growing penstemon, check out Susan Greer's Native Penstemons in our Gardens.  If you want to dig deeper, don't miss Myrna Jewett's really great article about growing shrubby beardtongues for rock gardens, with additional insight into the North American evolution of the Penstemon genus.  In it, she points out that penstemons are shifting slightly toward being hummingbird-pollinated, with an interesting discussion on why that might be.