Bog plants and bird feeder

there are things to wonder about everywhere!

Just after mid-May, the alders and cottonwoods were suddenly (so it seemed) in full leaf, the fresh, bright green a pleasant contrast with the dark conifers. Even the blueberries and other understory shrubs made a new layer of green above the mosses. Hermit thrushes added their welcome voices to the canopy and fox sparrows tuned up in the thickets.

Early in the fourth week of May, I poked around in some low-elevation bogs (muskegs). Several species were beginning to flower—bog blueberry with deep pink buds and young flowers, bog laurel with broad, pink petals, and bog rosemary with small, pink flowers. The white flowers of trailing raspberry (or five-leaf bramble) starred the mosses under the scattered trees. The distinctive few-flowered sedge was surprisingly colorful, with vibrant green leaves and a yellowish inflorescence. An unidentified sedge with pale green leaves was common but only a few were yet in flower. Labrador tea, lupines, and buckbean were budding. Round-leaf sundews were still just tiny rosettes, their sticky, insect-catching leaves glittering in the sun.

I found a single specimen of a weird little herb (Geocaulon lividum) sometimes called bastard toadflax , but also known as pumpkinberry or timberberry or other common names. Seldom common, it is nevertheless widely distributed across northern North America. It’s a hemiparasite—getting some of its nutrition from its green leaves and some by parasitizing the roots of other plants. It’s not fussy about its host plants; it parasitizes anything and everything from pine trees and blueberry bushes to asters and horsetails to sedges and grasses and even others of its own species.

Photo by David Bergeson

This plant makes only a few small inflorescences; each inflorescence typically has three flowers, usually one female flower in the middle, flanked by two male flowers that drop off eventually. The open flowers are dull yellowish-green with purple marks and I’m guessing they are pollinated by flies or beetles. The orange-red fruits are few, each one with a single seed. Very little seems to be known about seed germination and dispersal. But the seeds are sometimes harvested and cached by Arctic ground squirrels up north and presumably eaten, perhaps sometimes dispersed, by other rodents. It seems likely that birds would take the colorful, fleshy fruit and potentially disperse the seeds.

The fruit has plenty of sugar in it, especially when fully ripe at the end of the season (usually late summer). Estimates of sugar content found that each fruit has about thirty milligrams of sugar, which is more than blueberries or most other fruits in Southeast. Despite the sugar content, the fruit is reported to be just barely edible or tasteless to humans.

Here at home, there’s lots of action on the pond. As many as five male mallards gather, all good pals now that their lady friends are incubating eggs. That changes, though, when one late-nesting (or re-nesting) couple shows up, and the male of that pair harasses the peaceful gang, keeping them well away from his mate.

The bird feeders are busy places. Siskins, juncos, chickadees, and nuthatches visit the seed feeder that hangs over the pond. A jay slams into the side of that feeder, knocking cascades of seeds down for the ducks.

The peanut-butter feeders are the most fun. They’re just little blocks of wood with pits drilled into them, to hold a small gob of peanut butter. Chickadees and nuthatches went crazy over them, but now the juncos almost monopolize them. Juncos are not nearly as agile as the smaller birds, but they cling and stretch (and often fall off) to get a nice bite. Sometimes they perch on the deck railing and fly up to stab and grab out a bill-full.

The jay does the stab-and-grab method too, but he’s a bit rougher, hitting one of the smaller peanut-butter feeders hard enough to knock it off its hanger, so it fell to the deck and broke into four pieces. But that’s not the end of the jay’s mischief. It has started to come to the deck railing to scarf up leftover bits of cat food that I commonly leave out for a raven. One day that jay made off with a whole set of chicken ribs, a load that it could barely carry to a nearby tree. The raven was out of luck again.

Peterson Lake Trail

slime molds, a berry cornucopia, and a beautiful poison

One bright, sunshiny day in mid August, we checked out the Peterson Lake trail, which is about four and a half miles long, and ends at cabin by the lake. There were rumors of recent trail improvements on the first three quarters of a mile. Indeed, there’s a section with a new base layer of angular, ankle-twisting cobbles, eventually to be covered by finer gravels; then there’s a section of packed dirt and, just before the big waterfall, a smooth section of finished trail.

After the big waterfall (where the steelhead have to stop, in the spring), the trails goes on as it has for years, with a section of packed dirt and slippery ‘corduroy’ logs and then boardwalks through the muskegs. At the Mile 2 marker, a long stretch of mud and roots winds through the forest until the lake finally appears.

The forest was very quiet on this day and no birds were evident, so those of us who are interested in natural history focused nearer the ground. A black slime mold had developed on a log: thousands of individual, independent cells had been feeding on bacteria and fungi in the soil, but now they had gathered together in a single mass for reproduction. Some of the cells will produce spores, while others serve as support structures for the spore-producing individuals. I wonder how they decide which cells will make spores!

The muskegs were dotted with several kinds of ripe berries, including black crowberries, bog blueberries, red bunchberries, and orange cloudberries. I was interested to find a large colony of timberberry in one of the muskegs, with several stems bearing the orange fruit. Timberberry is sometimes called pumpkin berry or, for no apparent reason, bastard toadflax—a name more correctly applied to a different species, but still for no known reason. The name game gets quite confusing, because this plant had been classified in two different genera at different times by different taxonomists. Sigh. The most interesting thing about this plant is that it is a hemi-parasite, drawing some of its nutrition from other plants while also having its own leaves. This is a very versatile parasite, capable of using many host species, such as spruce, alder, willow, currant, bunchberry, horsetail, asters, lupines, and dozens of others.

timberberry. Photo by David Bergeson

The lake level seems to be maintained in part by beaver dams at the outlet. After poisoning many of the resident fish some decades ago, the lake was stocked with juvenile rainbow trout (in the 1960s). A boat by the cabin gives ready access to all parts of the lake.

Along the trail, we noted several late-flowering monkshoods, one of our loveliest wildflowers, which grows at many elevations around Juneau. The complex, bumblebee-pollinated flower is usually a rich purple, although sometimes the purple is streaked with white. A fascinating feature of this plant is that ALL parts are reported to be very poisonous, but perhaps especially the roots and seeds. Eating even a tiny amount of this plant is likely to cause intense gastro-intestinal distress, followed by cardiac and respiratory failure if not treated immediately. And if you handle the plant more than casually, for example by picking leaves or breaking off the stems with your bare hands (not merely brushing by it as you walk), your skin can absorb the poisons. You are then likely to suffer the negative cardiac and respiratory symptoms, but without the gastrointestinal calamities.

The poisonous properties of monkshood have been known for centuries, and extracts of the plant have been used to make poisonous arrows for hunting or warfare, among other deadly uses. On the other hand, as is true of many plant poisons (think of digitalis, for instance), monkshood has also been used medicinally, in small, careful doses. It is a food plant for the caterpillars of several species of moth, which clearly have evolved physiological means of dealing with the poisons. And the bumblebees that pollinate the flowers either find a way to cope or else perhaps the nectar and pollen has less of the poison. Monkshoods are popular garden plants, but it is obvious that gardeners must handle this plant with great care!