Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Friendly Approach to Grasses, Part 2

In the onrushing course of evolution, as flowering plants gained a majority presence on land, the grassy clan adapted to nearly every niche. With their growth point located near or below ground level - rather than at the stem tip - they could more successfully recover from grazing, trampling, fire, drought, and climate severities.

Three grassy plant families now present at Halibut Point are closely enough related to be grouped together as Graminoids: the true grasses Poaceae, the sedges Cyperaceae, and the rushes Juncaceae.
If the plant before you has long narrow leaves with parallel veins, very likely it's a Graminoid. If its stems are circular and hollow with nodes swollen where leaves join the stems, think true grass-Poaceae. If the stems are edgy and probably triangular in cross section, think sedge-Cyperaceae. If the stems are circular, solid, often wiry-looking, with leaves that usually sheath the stems, think rush-Juncaceae.

Calmagrostis canadensis, Canada blue joint
Across the moister areas of the Halibut Point heath at this moment a tall grass Canada blue joint is blooming with a cereal-looking inflorescence.

Calmagrostis canadensis closeup
It shows the kinds of features that have made grasses an inseparable part of human civilization, the backbone of agriculture and livestock pasturage. Wheat, corn, rice, all the cereal grains have their origins as grasses. The Poaceae sugar cane and bamboo also make extensive contributions to mankind's economic life.
Danthonia spicata, Poverty grass
Many grasses adapt to dry conditions by approaching dormancy in hot weather, even to the extent of shedding their leaves once the flower stalk is launched. A considerable portion of a grass plant's succulence is stored protectively within the root system. People commonly prod their lawns into mid-summer growth only by watering them regularly through the heat.

Setaria faberi, Chinese foxtail

Setaria viridis,  Green foxtail
There are upwards of thirty species of grasses to be found at Halibut Point. Getting oriented to the distinctions can be daunting. A friendly guide opens doors.

Chris Leahy reverses his binoculars for a close look.
When we took a tour together, ornithologist-field botanist Chris Leahy demonstrated a resourceful way to magnify the details of a grass flower.

Chris reads the flora along with other landscape features as one picture. Scanning the plants at eye level he predicts terrain, soil qualities and moisture. Looking down at ground characteristics he predicts specific plants. Along with knowing 'jizz' - the general visual impression of various plants - as well as the cycle of their seasonal development, and pertinent historical factors, he is well prepared to name the Graminoids we encounter without using identification keys. He narrates an ecological story.
Schizachyrium scoparium, Little bluestem
Little bluestem is one of the native grasses that Chris champions as a crucial constituent of the 'leaner' habitats on Halibut Point. It tolerates hot, dry soils with little fertility. It is the exclusive host (that is, food) for the caterpillar stage of some species of butterflies.

A wet area with a localized ecosystem
Quarrying operations left scattered pits that have naturalized into damp fens where we find Canada rush (Juncus canadensis) Toad rush (Juncus bufonius), Three-square sedge (Scirpus americana), and Wool sedge (Scirpus cyperinus).

Juncus tenuis, Path rush
Path rush seeds developing
Juncus tenuis seems exceptional among local Juncaceae in its ability to adjust to both damp and dry areas. Tough and wiry it tolerates foot traffic and contributes to the groundcover in compacted walkways throughout Halibut Point, earning the name 'path rush.'
Juncus effusus,  Soft rush
The more statuesque Juncus effusus is a fiber of choice source for weaving baskets and mats, resulting in the common name 'soft rush.'

Soft rush seeds developing
Circular stems, miniature lily-like flowers, and nutty-looking seeds give rush plants a characteristic look.
Carex crinita, Fringed sedge
Cyperaceae family members like this Fringed sedge tend to have clumps of flat-leaved arching foliage with 'edgy' flower stems that are triangular in cross-section.

Cyperus pseudovegetus, Marsh flatsedge
Most of the Cyperaceae grow in wet areas where their architectural forms stand pleasingly above the water surface.
Scirpus microcarpus, Barber-pole bulrush
One of the more ornate Cyperaceae, Barber-pole bulrush, distinguishes itself with a colorful stem pattern.
Barber-pole bulrush in a water-retentive pocket
It has established itself in a particularly fortunate location for Halibut Point State Park visitors.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Friendly Approach to Grasses, Part 1

The commonest, humblest, and most economically important plant group for mankind is the grasses. As we have seen these evolved in the same monocotyledon branch as lilies.

In  Grasses, An Identification Guide, Lauren Brown points out that all grasses and their close relatives - Graminoids - are wildflowers. She admits that the cognoscenti of their blooms and structures is but a small set of our population. She wants to set us on the road to appreciating their beauty by cutting through the tangles of nomenclature.

Lauren's method of presentation steers clear of botanical key systems and the anatomical distinctions that center on the (tiny) individual flowers. She organizes and illustrates for us amateurs. The book deserves its popularity.
As a consequence of this intuitive-visual approach  Ms. Brown includes certain non-Graminoids that the average person might consider grassy-looking. Camera in hand I searched Halibut Point for the Graminoid outliers.
Typha latifolia, Common cat-tail
Common cat-tails are at their most robust right now. One secluded colony sheltered a red-wing blackbird family in the spring.

Typha angustifolia, Narrow-leaved cat-tail
A more slender version of the cat-tail also grows at Halibut Point.

Plantago lanceolata, English plantain
Members of the Plantain family also suggest grasses. Similarities may occur in either the leaves or in flower stems. Most children have woven garlands or lariats from English plantains that pop up in lawns between mowings.
English plantain flower, magnified
However a careful examiner will note the structural differences that make plantains dicotyledons rather than monocots.

Plantago major, Common plantain
This distinction is more readily apparent in the broad reticulate leaves of Common plantain.

Plantago aristata, Bracted plantain
Out on the Halibut Point Overlook a profusion of grassy-looking plants carpets the gravel in spring.

Flowers of Bracted plantain
Minute flowers eventually make clear that these cannot be placed in the Graminoid category.

Plantago maritima, Seaside plantain
In a marvel of adaptability the Plantain family sports a member at the shore line. You can find Seaside plantain tucked among the rocks just above the tide, looking very grassy indeed.

Equisetum pratense, Meadow horsetail
The final grassy look-alike presented in Lauren Brown's guide is the horsetail, which bears spores rather than flowers and is more closely related to ferns than grasses. This plant was growing in the type of damp shady area that favors many ferns.

We'll continue this topic nest week with a gallery overview of the Graminoids themselves.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Around the Quarry Rim

Recent sights around the quarry rim lead me to break into the botany thread of Notes from Halibut Point with glimpses from another sphere. The amusement centers on youngsters in the bird world preparing for full fledge-ship.

Young robin
A young robin watches the proceedings from a treetop. He's been copying his parents' short dashes across the meadow, then freezing importantly into "worm-hunter" postures.
Cedar waxwing
At eye level with the young robin sits a cedar waxwing. Waxwings have been scarce this year.

Great blue herons, circling
An incongruous croaking sound draws my attention to a flock of great blue herons circling the quarry. They disappear behind the treeline.

Great blue herons
I sit very still on the edge of the quarry as the herons reappear to choose a roost nearby.

Mirrored herons
After a few tries the herons balance artfully in the tree tops.

Spotted sandpiper
Another long-legged wader briefly investigates the quarry for sustenance.
Mother mallard the proctor
Seven supervised ducklings tour tasty potentials along the cliffs.
Barn swallows
Up above a troop of barn swallows instructs its youngsters.
Young barn swallows
The fledglings try all sorts of spirited maneuvers between rest periods on the ledge. 
They alternate encouragement and harassment to their siblings.
Herring gull lands among Great black-backed gulls
Across the way gulls model their flight expertise.
Approaching the quarry rim
Air, water and rock form a theater of life for these necessities, and for the observer.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lilies and their Kin

Ah yes, my one-hundredth Note from Halibut Point, and we take up flowers. Eye-catching, alluring flowers.
Why do we notice flowers? Perhaps for the same reason that their pollinators do, as recruits into the plant's scheme for increasing its own kind. If a plant gets our attention we're more likely to help it along. There may be a nutritional benefit for us in return.
Or it may be coincidental.
It could also be that flowers exemplify beauty, an intangible woven into our existence to induce delight, reverence, and sanity to our occupation of the planet.
Flowers come forth as the first stage of seed production for angiosperms, that vast domain of plants which, unlike the conifers seen in the last essay, enhance their reproductive success by encasing their seeds within fruit structures. All fertile flowers are capable of developing into fruit structures.

Wood lily, Halibut Point
Botanists recognize a great divergence in the world of flowering plants between monocotyledons and dicotyledon. In their embryonic stage monocots develop from a single leaf while dicots develop from a pair of leaves, setting distinctive growth patterns that make plants fairly recognizable as belonging to one group or the other. Grasses and banana trees fall within the monocots. So do lilies.
Wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum
During July a few favored spots on the moors of Halibut Point sparkle with the inflorescence of wood lilies in a red-orange quite bolder than the common day lilies. Day lilies are neither native nor true lilies but hemerocallis which, though also monocots, are more closely related to orchids than to lilies.
Trout lily, Erythronium americanum
Earlier in the spring trout lilies carpet certain wooded areas. They rise from bulbs that properly place them within the family Liliacea.
Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense
Trout lilies easily associate with the ground cover Canada mayflower. Mayflowers have cousinly ties to lilies.
Sessile-leaved bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia
Bellwort occupies another branch of  the order Liliales.
Hairy Solomon's-seal, Polygonatum pubescens
You can see its flowers' resemblance to Solomon's-seal, which has similar habitat preferences. Note also that the leaf veins of  most monocots run parallel to the leaf edge giving them a distinctly different 'look' from most dicots which have reticulate venation.
Lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majalis
The non-native monocot lily-of-the-valley originally found its way into Halibut Point as an ornamental planting.
Catbrier, Smilax rotundifolia
A comparison of its flowers to those of catbrier softens the shock that this thorny menace (and protector of small creatures) is a close relative of the lily.
Blue flag, Iris versicolor
The month of June brings forth a memorable monocot moment when blue flags bloom in stream beds on the moors of Halibut Point.
Blue-eyed-grass, Sisyrinchium montanum
The iris-like foliage of blue-eyed grass shows the Iridaceae family resemblance more straightforwardly than the flowers do.
Wild garlic, showing typical monocot stems
Monocots are also characterized by a scattered arrangement of vascular tissue. A cross-section reveals the veins situated all across the diameter of the stem. In dicots, from daisies to oak trees, fluids move up and down the plant within the xylem and phloem tissues that form concentric rings just beneath the 'bark.'
Crow garlic Allium vineale in flower
In the next essay we will take a glimpse at the grass family of monocots whose flowers are far less showy  than the Liliaceae but which forms the most important economic group of all plants.