My weekend with a naturalist

During my studies in environmental science, I’ve met a lot of really interesting and intelligent people: folks who were studying penguins in Antarctica, glacial erratics on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and limnology in northern Russia. But I have never met someone who so completely blended so many fields of study as Jack Nisbet.

Jack is extremely knowledgeable about this region. And I’m not talking in just the general academic sense. Jack not only knows far too many plants, he also knows the history behind them. Jack says that each plant has a story, and in order to truly understand the plant and how it’s evolve, one must know more than just its scientific name.

I was lucky enough to go on two hikes this past weekend with Jack Nisbet. On Saturday, Jack led nine folks from all over the Northwest up one of the most popular hikes in the area, Scotchman Peak. And on Sunday, eleven of us hiked most of the Morris Creek Trail.

I quickly learned that botany is a great excuse to stop hiking and catch your breath. Jack would stop whenever he found an exciting plant and tell us its story. Most of Jacks expertise steams from the studies he’s done of David Thompson and David Douglas: two of the first white folks to study this area. Thompson and Douglas kept records of what they discovered and experienced in the Northwest. Jack is full of stories about these two remarkable men and about the plant life that they studied and interacted with. For the full story, check out one of Jacks books.

Bear grass
Bear grass

Jack indentified and told the story of a number of plants this past weekend, but he told us not to worry about remembering them all. If we could remember just one plant and its story we could call it a successful hike. So here are two of the plants that I remember Jack talking about this weekend, one for each hike.

Bear grass or Xerophyllum tenax.

Bear grass looks like grass, but it’s actually a member of the lily family. It doesn’t flower every year but blooms in cycles. Elk, deer, and mountain goats eat the big white flowers. The name bear grass comes from bears digging up the bulbs for food. Native Americans use bear grass to make baskets. Near the base of the grass the leaves turn a great purple color and this is woven into different designs.

Pine Drops (Photo by Matt Davidson)
Pine Drops (Photo by Matt Davidson)

Pine drops or Pterospora andromedea

Unlike most plants, pine drops don’t contain a significant amount of chlorophyll and so do not perform photosynthesis. Instead they draw their energy from the decomposition of organic matter. They can grow very tall and are sticky to the touch. The word Andromedea comes from Greek mythology and is the name for a princess who, as divine punishment for her mother’s bragging, was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. I’m not sure why pine drops were given this scientific name, but Jack offered us another common name, Coyote’s arrow. To me this name makes more sense because the flower sort of looks like an arrow, and if you know any of the Coyote myths, you can imagine the trouble Coyote could get into with a few of these.

The moral of the story is this: every plant has a story and sometimes it takes a little digging to figure it out.

Thanks so much Jack for leading these great hikes!

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  1. Nice recap for these two great hikes!

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