Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

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Field Trip: Coolwater Ridge Lookout

I spent this past weekend camping with friends near Grangeville, Idaho. I was attending the annual meeting of the Idaho Native Plant Society. Meetings in the boring sense of the word occurred, but they were brief. The bulk of the weekend consisted of long hikes on guided field trips. This post is a pictorial tour of a small fraction of the plants I saw on the Coolwater Ridge Lookout trail which is located in the Bitterroot Mountains  – my first of two all-day field trips. From where we were hiking we could look down at the canyon where the Selway River was fixing to meet the Lochsa River to form the middle fork of the Clearwater River. This is a part of Idaho that is basically too beautiful for words. At some point I will have more to say about this particular location, but for now here are a handful of semi-decent photos I took while on the hike.

A view from Coolwater Ridge Lookout trail. Looking down at the Selway River Canyon.

A view from Coolwater Ridge. Looking down at the Selway River canyon.

Erythronium grandiflorum - yellow glacier lily

Erythronium grandiflorum – yellow glacier lily

Leptosiphon nuttallii - Nuttall's linanthus

Leptosiphon nuttallii – Nuttall’s linanthus

Polemonium pulcherrimum - Jacob's-ladder

Polemonium pulcherrimum – Jacob’s-ladder

A view from the ridge. Looking down at the Selway River Canyon.

Sambucus racemosa – red elderberry

Phlox diffua - spreading phlox

Phlox diffusa – spreading phlox

Ribes viscosissimum - sticky currant

Ribes viscosissimum – sticky currant

Senecio integerrimus var. exaltatutus - Columbia groundsel

Senecio integerrimus var. exaltatutus – Columbia groundsel

Synthyris platycarpa - kittentails

Synthyris platycarpa – Idaho kittentails

Vaccinium scoparium - whortleberry

Vaccinium scoparium – grouse whortleberry

Viola glabella - pioneer violet

Viola glabella – pioneer violet

Cheilanthes feei - Fee's lipfern

Cheilanthes feei – Fee’s lipfern

Stay tuned for photos from the second of two field trips. In the meantime, go outside and see some nature.

The Making of a Kill Jar

I often hear stories from plant lovers about their initial nonchalance concerning plants. The common refrain seems to be that they were fascinated by wildlife and largely ignored plant life until they came to the realization that plants were integral in the lives of animals and play a major role in shaping the environments that support all life. Such an epiphany spawns an insatiable obsession with botany, at least for some people.

I seem to be on the opposite trajectory. It’s not like I have ever really been disinterested in animals; I’ve just been significantly more interested in plants and haven’t bothered to learn much about the animal kingdom (with the exception of entomology). My growing fascination with pollination biology (see last year’s Year of Pollination series) isn’t much of a stretch because insects have always appealed to me, and their intimate interactions with plants are hard to ignore. Ultimately, it is my interest in urban ecology and wildlife friendly gardening that is driving me to learn more about animals.

I started this year off by finally reading Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy wrote a lot about birds in his book, which got me thinking more about them. I then discovered Welcome to Subirdia, a book by John Marzluff that explores the diversity of birds that live among us in our urban environments. I then found myself paying more attention to birds. Many bird species rely on insects for food at some point in their lives. Plants regularly interact with insects both in defending themselves against herbivory and in attracting insects to assist in pollination. It’s all connected, and it seems I wouldn’t be much of a botanist then if I didn’t also learn about all of the players involved in these complex interactions.

So, now I’m a birdwatcher and an insect collector. Or at least I’m learning to be. Insects are hard to learn much about without capturing them. They often move quickly, making them hard to identify, or they go completely unnoticed because they are tiny and so well hidden or camouflaged. With the help of a net and a kill jar, you can get a closer look. This not only allows you to determine the species of insects that surround you, but it can also help give you an idea of their relative abundances, their life cycles, where they live and what they feed on, etc.

insect net 2_bw

As the name implies, if you’re using a kill jar, your actions will result in the death of insects. Some people will be more pleased about this than others. If killing insects bothers you, don’t worry, insect populations are typically abundant enough that a few individuals sacrificed for science will not hurt the population in a serious way.

Kill jars can be purchased or they can be made very simply with a few easy to find materials. Start with a glass jar with a metal lid. Mix up a small amount of plaster of paris. Pour the wet plaster in the jar, filling it to about one inch. Allow the plaster to dry completely. This process can be sped up by placing the jar in an oven set on warm. When the plaster is dry, “charge” the jar by soaking the plaster with either ethyl acetate, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol. I use nail polish remover because it is cheap and easily accessible. It doesn’t work as quickly as pure ethyl acetate, but it is less toxic. Place a paper towel or something soft and dry in the jar. This keeps the insects from getting beaten up too much as they thrash about. Once the insect is dead, it can be easily observed with a hand lens or a dissecting microscope. It can also be pinned, labeled, and added to a collection.

There are several resources online that describe the process of collecting and preserving insects, including instructions for making an inexpensive kill jar, which is why I am keeping this brief and will instead refer you to a couple of such sites. Like this one from Purdue University’s extension program. It’s directed toward youth, but it includes great information for beginners of any age. This post by Dragonfly Woman is a great tutorial for making a kill jar, and there are several other posts on her blog that are very informative for insect collectors of all experience levels.

I guess you could consider this part of my journey of becoming a naturalist. Perhaps you are on a similar journey. If so, share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.

Book Review: Rambunctious Garden

Last month in a post entitled Making the Case for Saving Species, I reviewed an article written by Emma Marris about doing all we can to prevent species from going extinct, even when the approach is not a popular one – like introducing rust resistant genes into native whitebark pine populations. Intrigued by Marris’ words, I decided to finally read her book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild Word, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and had been on my list of books to read for at least a couple of years before that. At only 171 pages, Marris’ book is a quick read and comes across as an introduction to some sort of revolution. Its brevity demands future volumes, which are hopefully on their way.

rambunctious garden

The general topic that Marris addresses is how to do conservation work in a world that is riddled with human fingerprints, especially coming from a perspective that human influence is and has been largely negative. What should our goals be? The traditional approach has been to restore natural areas to a historical baseline. In North America, that baseline is usually pre-European colonization. So, we remove introduced species and we use whatever records we have and data we can gather to make natural areas look and function as they did several hundred years ago.

But there are some concerns with this approach. Rewinding time requires massive amounts of money, labor, and time, and if that historical baseline is ever achieved, it will require great effort to keep it there. Also, a number of species have gone extinct and there is no way of replacing them (unless we introduce similar species as proxies), and some species require large areas to roam that even our most spacious parks cannot accommodate. And then there is the challenge of continual change. Anthropogenic climate change aside (which complicates conservation and restoration efforts in serious ways), the earth’s ecosystems are in a constant state of flux, so holding a site to a pre-determined baseline makes little sense when viewed from a geological timescale.

There is another issue – which is in part a semantic one – and that is, we seem to have a distorted view of nature. We like to think of it as being apart from us, away from us, somewhere wild and pristine. Marris writes: “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.”

We are blinded because “pristine” is a myth. Every inch of the globe has been altered in some way by humans – some areas more than others – and disconnecting ourselves from nature in a way that makes it unattainable deters us from the perception that nature can be all around us. Nature is not found only in national parks, nature preserves, and other protected areas, but in our backyards, on our rooftops, along roadsides, in the cracks of concrete, and in farm fields. Nature is everywhere. And if nature is everywhere, then conservation can happen everywhere.

After a brief overview of how we (Americans specifically) arrived at our current approach to conservation and restoration, Marris dives into some new approaches, visiting sites around the world and talking with biologists and ecologists about their work.  She explores rewilding (Pleistocene rewilding even), assisted migration, embracing exotic species, novel ecosystems, and designer ecosystems. The subject matter of each chapter in Marris’ book is worthy of a post or two of its own, but I’ll spare you that and suggest that you read the book. The controversy that surrounds these novel approaches is also worth noting. A few searches and clicks on the internet will lead you to some fairly heated debates about the ideas that Marris puts forth in her book, as well as some criticisms of Marris herself.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) - a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) – a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

My view as an outsider – that is, one without a high level degree in ecology and lacking years of experience working in the field – is that the tools and methods outlined in Marris’ book are worth exploring further. Certainly, each natural area must be approached differently depending on the conditions of the site and the goals of the managers. [Marris offers a great overview of some goals to consider in her last chapter.] Ultimately it is up to people much smarter and more experienced than I to sort it all out. But I heartily encourage thinking outside of the box…for whatever it’s worth.

And that brings me to what I loved most about the book. Controversy aside, Marris’ clarion call for a paradigm shift is a welcome one. Nature is all around us, and regardless of what land managers and the powers that be decide to do with large tracts of land “out there,” every individual can find purpose and beauty in the nature that surrounds them, whether it be the street trees that line our neighborhoods or the vacant lot growing wild with weeds down the street. We can decide to let our yards go a little feral, to plant some native plants, to encourage wildlife in urban areas, and to even do a little assisted migration of our own by planting things from nearby regions just to see how they will do in our changing climate. In short, we can garden a bit more rambunctiously. And we should.

This is how Marris puts it:

If we fight to preserve only things that look like pristine wilderness, such as those places currently enclosed in national parks and similar refuges, our best efforts can only retard their destruction and delay the day we lose. If we fight to preserve and enhance nature as we have newly defined it, as the living background to human lives, we may be able to win. We may be able to grow nature larger than it currently is. This will not only require a change in our values but a change in our very aesthetics, as we learn to accept both nature that looks a little more lived-in than we are used to and working spaces that look a little more wild than we are used to.

Read a short interview with Marris about her book here, and listen to a discussion with her on a recent episode of Out There podcast.