July 3, 2014


Aquilegia sp.
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)

Quick ID
Ternately divided leaves
Columbines are upright, rather delicate looking plants with basal leaves generally around 6" tall, and flowering stalks that can reach 2 1/2'.  The fruits are a distinctive follicle of five slender pods with extended pointy tips, clustered together and splitting open to release rather large black seeds.  Leaves are usually two times divided into threes (making nine leaflets per leaf), and mostly clustered at the base of the plant.  The flower stalk sports a few smaller leaves; for the most part they're fairly insignificant.
Pod-like fruits
The flowers, however, are unmistakable. Five colorful sepals encircle five (usually) lighter colored petals whose bases sweep back into knobby spurs.  Colorado columbine (A. coerulea) has light purpley-blue sepals, with straight spurs twice as long as the petals.  Another species  common in Montana, yellow columbine (A. flavescens) has lemony yellow sepals that sometimes run towards pink,  and the spurs are much squatter and more curled in.  Both have a waggly tuft of stamens and styles poking down from the center of the blossom.
Meadowrue - same leaves, different flower
Aquilegia leaves can be easily mistaken for another Ranunculaceae member, the meadowrue (Thalictrum sp.) that grows in similar spaces.  Once they're blooming it's easy to tell them apart; Thalictrum has inconspicuous flowers that can't compare to columbine's showy blossoms.
There are many species of Aquilegia in the US (five in Montana), with lots of varieties within themselves, and the species have a tendency to hybridize with each other as well.  That being said, color is not always a great way to tell species apart.  The morphology of the spurs and where the plant is found growing can provide better clues. 

Look for columbines in moist meadows and forests.  In Montana, A. coerulea has a smaller, more southerly range (extending from the lower quarter of the state and down to New Mexico) and prefers shadier sites.  A. flavescens can take more sun, and is pretty widespread in high elevations throughout western and central MT, on down to Utah and Colorado.
The pink sepals hint that this may be a hybrid of A. flavescens and A. formosa  (red columbine), a less common species that grows at lower elevations.  This photo was taken at Pine Creek in the Paradise Valley.

What's in a Name?
This plant is totally named for its looks.  Aquilegia probably comes from the Latin aquila, "eagle," for the spurs that look like talons.  Other sources claim the genus is derived from aqua (water) and lego (to collect), for the spurs' resemblance to ancient water urns.  The species name coerulea is quite common in the plant world, and means blue, while flavescens (and its equally common root flavens) means yellow.  The name "columbine" itself comes from the Latin word for dove, columba.  People say the flower looks like five little doves sipping from a water bowl together, tails poking towards the sky.

Columbines are pollinated by hummingbirds and hawk moths, who can reach deep into the flower to get at the nectar.  I've also seen plenty of bumblebees in my garden burrowing down into the tubes.  Growing up in Minnesota, red columbines (probably A. canadensis) were common, but we always knew them as "honeysuckles."  Indeed, it was my favorite thing as a wee one in the woods, to bite off the sweet little nectar-filled spur tips of these flowers.  Of course now I know that, like all these Ranunculaceae characters, Aquilegia can be pretty poisonous.  Eating a large enough quantity of the seeds, especially, can be dangerous and even fatal.  These toxic little seeds have been used in the past as a parasiticide to treat lice infestations as well.  Beautiful and deadly...

Wild Gardening
A. coerulea fitting into a shady woodland garden nicely, along with alumroot (Heuchera cylindrica), hosta, bleeding heart and bedstraw (Galium odoratum)
According to Lone Pine's totally awesome new Alpine Plants of the Northwest field guide, yellow columbines are Montana gardener's number one favorite native perennial herb.  And for good reason.  Most of us are forever on the lookout for an easy-to-grow plant with gorgeous blooms that does well in shady spaces.  These perennials are tolerant and adaptive, very easy to start from seed, and bloom in the thick of summer, late June to August.  I've noticed mine spreading over the years, filling in their shady nook, but not to the point of being obnoxious.  I've also noticed that, as the flowers start to fade, their almost always seems to be a collection of aphids gathered on the developing fruits.  This has never caused any problems in my garden whatsoever, but it does tend to make the protruding flower stalks look a little yucky.  At this point I usually snip those stalks off at the base, and enjoy the pretty foliage for the rest of the season.

May 6, 2014

So you want to build a Pollinator Hotel...

Well you can!  And you should.  Pollinator Hotels provide essential habitat for cavity-nesting insects like mason bees and leafcutters, as well as other beneficial critters like spiders, ladybugs, and butterflies.  You'll get to watch this mini-ecosystem unfold in your backyard, observing first hand its life cycles, food chains and day to day goings-on.  Your hotel can be tidy and symmetrical, or thrown together with wild abandon.  You can build them to suit your fancy, changing features and adding on over the years.  And with a little ingenuity and a bit of time spent gathering materials, they're inexpensive and easy to put together.

I build these wild bee houses using salvaged fenceboards and shingles, blue-stain lumber milled from trees killed by bark beetles, and whatever else scraps I can find.  (If you want to buy one, here's my Etsy Shop!)
You can also expand on this idea and install a Pollinator Hotel on-site.  We did this recently as part of the Homestead Hey Day spring celebration at the historic Moon-Randolph Homestead in Missoula.  Volunteers pooled their craftsmanship and creativity, using scrap wood from around the ranch, locally gathered natural materials and hand tools to build a beautiful and functional house for helpful bugs.  We've still got some finishing touches to do, drilling holes in the logs and stuffing crevices with bee tubes, but for one happy afternoon's work, it turned out pretty incredible.  
If you want to build your own you'll want to follow just a few basic guidelines.  Here are some tips to help you get started.

1.  Build a frame
Anything goes, pretty much!  You might want to sketch out a plan before you begin.  How big?  Do you want formal rows of tubes and drilled holes, or rustic compartments of natural materials?  Will it be built on posts, or hanging?  Do you want to stack materials so the hotel can be dismantled and rebuilt easily, or do you want a frame that's held in place by screws...or cement, or...?  Do you want to include spaces to put soil and grow live plants on the structure?  If so, you might want to put them down low so you can water without drenching your insect nesting materials.
Whatever you decide, remember that native bees need one end of their nesting cavity closed.  If you're using completely hollow tubes, you'll want to put a backboard of some sort up.  If you're drilling holes through logs, you can opt to not drill all the way through (for example, drill a 6" deep hole in a 7" deep log).  I personally recommend drilling all the way through and putting up a backboard, however.  That way if you ever decide to clean out your bee holes, it's much easier.

2. Put it in the right place
You'll want to locate your Pollinator Hotel in a place that's at least somewhat shielded from heavy wind and rain.  Face the opening to the south or east so it gets plenty of warm morning sun.  If you live in a really hot sunny location, some afternoon shade in midsummer is helpful too.  Raising the frame off the ground a few feet deters ants, who have been known to sneak in and steal the pollen reserves left for developing larvae.  Just don't put it so high that it's out of insects' normal flight paths.  Somewhere between 4-8' off the ground is ideal.  And make sure the insects have access to a source of food (pollen from trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables within a couple hundred yards), water and mud, which mason bees use to line their brood cells.  We located ours at the edge of the vegetable garden, facing out towards an ancient orchard.  The early spring flowers of fruit trees are perfect for mason bees (also known as blue orchard bees).  Remember that, once you start to fill in your frame, it will get heavy, so you might want to get it in place beforehand.

3.  Provide nooks and crannies
The idea is to mimic the natural nesting sites of insects in the wild.  This helps mitigate the effects of habitat destruction as native ecosystems give way to concrete, asphalt and (gasp!) turf grass.  So build one for environmental stewardship and conservation!  But also do it for yourself.  Attracting a diverse array of native insects to your yard and garden leads to a healthier ecological balance (thus reducing insect pests), better pollination of your fruits, flowers and veggies, and an awesome opportunity to observe these fascinating creatures up close.
Try to provide a diversity of cracks and crevices to accommodate different nesting habits.  Ladybugs, beetles, lacewings, beneficial spiders, moths and butterflies all seek shelter to raise their young and overwinter, and many native bee species nest in hollow tubes and cavities.  Use different sized sticks, dead flower stalks (sunflowers work great), straw, pine cones, dry grasses and pieces of bark to fill compartments.  Avoid wood that's been treated or recently varnished.
Things are starting to take shape!  Peter cuts plant stalks into tubes, Tyson saws logs, and Natasha slices bark rings to build compartments.

4.  Make the bee holes the right size and depth
Mason bee cells in a milkweed stem
Tubes and drilled holes should be about 6" deep.  This is important.  Nesting mason bees will fill the first ~4" with female eggs, and cap each tube with a couple males.  The eggs hatch into larvae, which pupate into adult bees at the end or the summer.  The males emerge first (presumably to be offered up to any predators lurking outside the nest) followed by the females a couple weeks later.  If your tubes are too short, you risk having all female eggs.  Cavity nesting bees also avoid holes that are too deep, so try not to go over 8" or so.

There are thousands of species of wild bees...all different sizes and with varying preferences.  When drilling holes or cutting tubes, the standard recommended diameter is 3/8".  I've seen bees nest in holes down to 1/8" and as big as 5/8".  I try to provide a variety of sizes, to see what different species I can attract.

Gathering tubes
Finding hollow-stemmed plant materials can be tough.  If you live in an area with bamboo, that works perfect.  I try to use the previous year's dry stalks of Japanese knotweed (an abundant noxious weed), Fuller's teasel (a pain to process, with all the prickles), Queen Anne's lace, milkweed, elderberry, even corn stalks.  Remember that many species have nodes that go all the way through the stem, so these parts need to be cut out or placed towards the back of your hotel.

5.  Protect it
Besides choosing a sheltered location, it helps to put some sort of slanted roof on so rain rolls off.  And if you're worried about birds, squirrels or deer getting into your nesting materials, put some small-gauge chicken wire over the front entrance.

6.  Maintain it over time
If you're using straw, dry grass or other decomposables, clean out the compartment and replace with fresh materials each spring.  In the case of bee cavities, mites and other pests can build up if the tubes aren't cleaned out periodically.  Once every four years or so you'll want to scrape out debris with a poker or replace the tubes entirely.  Some people recommend spraying the holes with a 5-10% bleach solution to kill mites.
Keep an eye on your Pollinator Hotel.  Over time, you'll have an idea of who lives where, what the most popular rooms are, and how well each material and arrangement is working.  Experiment!  Change it up.  Have fun.

If you want to learn more about native pollinators, visit my Wild House of Bees page.  Also check out this excellent compilation of insect habitats from Inspiration Green to see what people around the world are building.  And please, post pictures of what you come up with!

April 20, 2014


Pulsatilla patens
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)

Quick ID
Look for tufts of silky leaves growing from a perennial root crown, about 6" tall.  The leaves are divided into wispy leaflets, generally in threes.  The silver dollar sized flowers lack petals; what a "normal" person would call the petals are technically sepals, forming a cup-shaped calyx around a cluster of waggly yellow stamens.  (Calyx is what the sepals are called collectively.  If they were petals, it would be called a corolla.  Botany, boom.)
Flowers, which come up before the leaves, are shades of purple, from deep mauve to pale lavender.  They have silvery hairs on the outside, with smooth, lighter colored inner surfaces.  Although you might find a rare white P. patens, it's more likely what you're seeing is the western pasqueflower, P. occidentalis, or one of the Anemone species.

The flowers poke upright when they're new, then hang down like a bell as they mature, and finally give way to little smokebombs of tufted hairs as they set fruit.

P. patens is found in the boreal zone (45°-65° latitude) all around the northern hemisphere.  It's fairly common in the the western region of North America, from Alaska down to New Mexico.  The pasqueflower prefers drier places than many of its Ranunculaceae cousins.  Look for it in grasslands or open rocky (often south-facing) slopes, in steppe to subalpine zones. (Side note.  Steppe communities are basically grassland prairies and plains, where the only trees found are the ones growing by water, and the subalpine region is found just below the treeline.  The elevation of these zones can vary dramatically based on where you are in the world.)

What's in a Name?
"Pasque" is from the original Latin word for Easter, Pascha.  You can usually find these flowers blooming around the Easter holiday...oftentimes before the snow is even off the ground.  The species name patens means "spreading," and is one you see a lot in the plant world.  Pulsatilla is derived from the Latin pulso, meaning battered or beaten.  This might be because the flowers, top-heavy on their delicate stems, bob around and seem battered by the wind.

This segues nicely into a quick chat about anemones.  Most (but not all) sources agree that anemones were named for the Greek anemos, "wind," hence the common name of windflower.  Maybe, as some say, it's because the flowers only open when they're beaten by the wind, or on the other hand, won't open if the wind is blowing.
Maybe the Greek wind gods, the Anemoi, use these flowers to herald their arrival in spring.  Or maybe (and this is the one I like to believe) they're windflowers because their seeds are so obviously and perfectly adapted for wind dispersal.  Their tiny nut-like achenes (a one-seeded fruit) sport feathery plumes that just beg to be blown and tumbled across an open prairie.  Pulsatilla patens shares pretty much all characteristics with those of Anemone, except the hairy tails of their fruits are long like a kite.  Indeed, pasqueflower is often cited as Anemone patens.  

Common names for this plant can be confusing.  It's sometimes called prairie smoke (in reference to the hairy fruits), although this is more widely accepted as the common name for Geum triflorum.  Many sources list it as prairie crocus, although the garden-variety crocus we all know and love is actually in the iris family.  It's also known as the Easter flower, May Day flower, cutleaf anemone, and probably a host of other regional names.  

As with all of the Ranunculaceae crew, the pasqueflower contains poisonous compounds that can make you really sick, causing nausea, dizziness and a drop in blood pressure.  And as with pretty much all poisonous plants, there are numerous accounts of people using it medicinally to treat an array of ailments.  Here's what Montana Plant Life has to say...
Use of pasqueflower reportedly lessens sexual excitement. It does not diminish sexual power but rather strengthens it by lessening excitement. A drug derived from the chopped whole plant induces vomiting and irritation of the kidneys. In high doses it acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and the heart. A decoction of the plant was used by the Blackfoot Indians to speed delivery of a child.
Yeesh.  As always, proceed with caution.  Plants are crazy dangerous.  Durr.
I did think it was interesting, however, to find so many references to using mashed pasqueflower leaves as a "counter-irritant" for bruises, sore muscles and rheumatic joints.  Is this like when you have a toothache and someone offers to stomp on your foot to distract you from the pain?  Must be!  I do know these leaves are covered in little hairs, and handling them too much can be really irritating to sensitive skin.
Being a common plains wildflower, the toxins in pasqueflower can be a problem for domestic grazing animals.  I've also read that dense stands of pasqueflower is an indication that the land has been overgrazed, but can't find any decent explanation as to why this is.  Are they pioneer species, the first to colonize the disrupted ecosystem, or are they just growing in abundance because grazers selectively avoid them?
I did find some interesting reading on the decline of P. patens populations in boreal forests due to decreased grazing and increased fire suppression.  As domestic grazing declines and normal forest fire cycles are disrupted, the vegetation undergrowth gets thicker and more closed-in.  This has a pretty drastic effect on many species in the boreal ecosystem, especially those that grow in open sites with relatively small amounts of forest litter. 

Wild Gardening
By all means!  Seeds are easy to collect and don't require cold stratification, although the Native Plant Network does recommend a 60 day cold spell.  You can also divide clumps or take root cuttings in spring or late fall.  Keep them in the sun, in fairly dry soil, and know that plants might go dormant in drought conditions.  The flowers are lovely, and the feathery leaves last well into the summer.  Being such an early bloomer, pasqueflowers provide crucial nectar reserves for early emerging wild bee pollinators.  Try some in your rock garden!  Send me pictures.

March 15, 2014

Welcome back, Spring!

Happy Ides of March, everyone!  I'm back after a solid winter break, and pretty excited to be packing away my long undies and sharpening up my garden tools.  It's been a badass winter...
Here's my back yard, June 1st a couple years ago versus March 1st this year.  All that snow is from one day, btw, and is well over ten feet high.  It was an excellent blizzard, and after a day of subzero temps and howling yowling winds, the weather is pretty much back to normal for this time of year.  Sunny skies mixed with some drizzly rainshowers, and temps in the glorious mid-50s.
A hike on Waterworks Hill yesterday told me that the bitterroots are out in droves.  I found hundreds of the bright green anemones tucked into the rocky northeast slopes.  Now I'll start keeping my eyes peeled for buttercups, draba and Rocky Mountain douglasia.  The earliest spring wildflowers are some of my favorites.
Draba verna, each flower no bigger than a grain of rice.
I'm starting up a new project with Watershed Consulting, hunting for Mecinus janthinus, the biocontrol weevil that attacks the noxious weed toadflax.  The hard cold temperatures this winter (we had two good stretches where it was under 20 below zero) killed off quite a few bugs, which overwinter as adults in the toadflax stems.  Our plan is to find stems that were hidden underneath the snow during those cold snaps.  Hopefully the snow will have provided some protection from the frigid temps, much like an insulating blanket.  We'll see!  Once we find the weevils, we'll pack some of the population up and ship them out. The simple version of how biocontrol projects like this work is this:
Linaria dalmatica, Dalmation Toadflax
A non-native plant moves into an area where it has no natural predators, nothing to check its growth.  In some cases, this exotic plant turns out to be such a good competitor that it starts displacing the native plants of the area, which in turn has a devastating ripple effect on the local ecosystem.  The plants that have really really bad environmental and economic effects get deemed official "noxious weeds," and are thereafter subject to some government regulations.  One of the ways we try to control these noxious invaders is through the use of biocontrols...in other words, introducing predators that will attack the weeds and slow their population growth.  Like a weevil, that eats toadflax.  It's a long, somewhat complicated process (you can imagine the risks involved in introducing another exotic species into the environment) but in the end, biocontrol agents really do work as a weed management tool.  So we introduce the bugs, let their population build up to a healthy level, then collect some and ship them to other parts of the state that have the weed but not yet the weevil.  And so on and so forth.  
Matt, from my 2013 Youth in Restoration crew, getting biocontrol weevils ready to ship.
It's a fascinating and effective process, and one that I'm really excited to learn more about.  Over the next few weeks, you'll find me out in the hills, rambling through weedy patches, slicing stems and looking for Messinus.  Did they survive more on north or south slopes?  Low or high?  Big stems or small?  The Bitterroot Valley or the Swan?  So many questions.  I'll let you know how it goes.
In other news, I'm still building wild bee houses, and now is the season to order one!  You can visit my Flora montana Etsy shop, or pop in to one of the Missoula businesses that carry them (the Naturalist's Mercantile and The Buttercup Market and Cafe, at the moment).  I have woodblock photography and bee houses on display (and for sale!) at the Montana Natural History Center through the end of April, and will be setting some stuff up at Bad Goat for a First Friday show in May.  And of course, feel free to drop me a line if you'd like to order one directly from me!  I'd love to hear from you.  Happy spring, everyone.  I'll be back soon with the first of this season's Plant Profiles.  Keep in touch.