June. The training month. It happens every year in Natural Resource Management. We wait forever for the wetness of spring to melt away mushy pads of snow over the forest floor. As the frozen crystals slowly subside, small sprouts of the most alive green shoots rocket skyward from underground roots. They are fleshy, tender, almost translucent, yet resilient like children. And the animals can’t wait to take a bite. And other animals come to bite those animals. Water begins to flow, faster now, folding into counters of the earth. Spring awakening begins. Now prepared, the watchful are ready to discover what will develop on the earth this season.
But we don’t get to go yet. There’s training. Great to get together with colleagues, but hard to stay indoors any longer. Yet it is a necessary process, a human calibration of sorts, and so we go to training and we drink coffee and we bring sweet rolls and we share information with those around us. And you know if you’ve attended a FSPW training over the last month, we have a really fun time, too! Including a Trails Skills Course, Noxious Weeds ID, Wilderness First Aid, and Botanical Survey Techniques, there have been plenty of informative mini-courses to choose from. And that’s not even mentioning the great lectures that have been ongoing in our educational series over the past few months. We have many partners to thank for making all this possible, including the Montana Wilderness Association, the Kinnikinnick and Calypso chapters of the Idaho Native Plant Society, Longleaf Wilderness Medicine, the Idaho Master Naturalists, the United States Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, several knowledgeable natural resource professionals and great teams of dedicated volunteers.
Preparations for the Treasured Landscapes botanical surveys unfolded over the last few weeks. Powerpoints were balanced with time in the USFS pollinator gardens at the Sandpoint Ranger District, as well as time spent out on local trails. On the Miniknik Trail, volunteer crews identified and mapped the occurrence of noxious weed species along this popular recreational trail. High-use trails such as this are at risk for invasive species encroachment due to a large volume of ‘vector traffic.’ People, in average endeavors through the woods, often become unwitting vehicles for seeds, transporting barbed or otherwise velcro-like seeds in their clothing folds or hair along these corridors. Many of these invaders also enjoy full sun exposure, and the canopy disturbance inherent in trail creation becomes further encouragement to weed establishment.
On Schweitzer Creek and Mineral Point, we cataloged as many species as we could decipher. Lots of wildflowers were blooming on these warm but rainy days, and we even found plant species listed in the USFS Sensitive Plant Handbook, members of the Botrychium genus.
The first recorded descriptions of Botrychiums were made by 16th century herbalist Leonhart Fuchs, whose works have been acknowledged for centuries as a masterpiece collection of Renaissance botany. The Botrychiums were given the Latin name Lunaria (Moon), due to many species’ lunar-like or moon-like leaflets, and wyrt (Old English = -wort), meaning plant. Personally, I believe Moonworts have mastered the art of mimicry! To me, they appear much like a small fir cone, a cedar-scaled branch-tip, or fern fiddle-heads and fronds. Maturing at around 1-3 inches off the ground, in sparse populations, they can be very hard to detect! Their growth form consists of only two leaves, and these plants display a unique life-cycle: one frond, the sporophore, is modified for reproduction, while the other trophophore frond concerns itself with photosynthesis. Their reproductive strategies have evolved as intragametophytic self-fertilization, which produces results like those of vegetative reproduction, where genetic variation among the generations remains low. Considering their ties within the taxonomic order Polpodiophyta, the reproductive methods displayed in Botrychiums also give clues about their prehistoric origins during the Paleozoic era. Of further interest is the symbiotic relationship Botrychium species maintain with mychorrhizal fungi. Small reproductive spores that have eased into the underground soils apparently secrete an attractant that entices the fungi to attach themselves to the spores. These fungi, in turn, buffer the developing Botrychium spores, serving as a source of nutrients and water, reducing direct interaction with environmental changes and variability. The spores may remain in the substrate this way for 5-10 years before finally emerging. For all these reasons, these rare plants present themselves as especially mysterious and primitive.
But enough talk of the old, as crews begin gearing up their backpacks and note-taking equipment, we are heading into the NOW. It is time to get to ground truthing. Weeds Crews are beginning to travel the trails of the Lightening Creek drainages, while our Alpine Excursionists are set to gain altitude on Scotchman Peak early next week. Good luck to everyone out there!!!
(Sources: SW CO Wildflowers, Systematics of Moonworts, Botrychius Subgeus Botrychium, Flora of North America)