Thursday, September 22, 2011

Western Plants

And now...all those western plants I promised! I have had little personal experience with these plants as food or medicine, as I have just recently met them. However, I've done quite a bit of research upon my return home and so invite you to learn about these plants along with me! Also, please do contribute any further info you may have about these beauties...

Sierra Gooseberry (Ribes roezlii)
 I had never before seen such a fruit and so I thought surely by the looks of its spiky encasing it couldn't be edible. Well, I should have known better...just like the at first touch seemingly unappealing Wood Nettle or Cat-brier...upon later identification I realized I was looking at Gooseberry! Quite the edible plant. From what I understand, boiling these guys for a few minutes in a bit of water will help to soften their spines. Once softened, mash them, let sit overnight, then press through a sieve into another container and let this sit overnight so that the sediment will separate from the juice. The juice can be poured off and made into syrup or jelly, whereas the sediment can be thickened and used as a pie filling (info courtesy of This plant was growing in abundance trail-side in Sequoia National Forest.

Sierra Mint (Pycnanthemum californicum)
I found this cottony beauty along the trail in the Redwoods. It had the strong recognizable odor of mint upon first touch. It's other mint characteristics included a square stem, opposite leaves, and bilabiate (two-lipped) flowers. Special to this mint was its four-column arrangement of leaves- in other words, one pair oriented north/south, the pair above or below oriented east/west. Like our eastern mountain mints, it would make a pleasant tea.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
Most every dry rocky or sandy mountain I hiked in California supported these hardy shrubs/small trees. Their dried dead leaves, looking something like brown poker chips littered the edges of trail, shifting and shuffling in the sand with each hiker's step. Their branches twist and tangle similar to that of Rhododendron, creating red-barked thickets, impossible to penetrate. Though rather different looking in appearance, Manzanita actually shares the same genus as a common medicinal plant, Bearberry, also well known by its species name, Uva-ursi. I am uncertain as to what species this was, but most Manzanita berries are edible. Traditionally they were dried and ground into a meal or soaked along with branch tips producing a sort of cider.

Sequoia giganteum cone

Sequoiadendron giganteum needles
Believe it or not that little cone up there belongs to the largest trees (by volume) in the world. The Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) cones were even smaller, about the size of a Hemlock cone. These cones were strewn about and at times piled up on the trail throughout the old-growth grove in King's Canyon, and when my feet suddenly left the ground and I found myself gazing up at the tree-tops, I came to know their marble-like qualities. No easy task to walk across marbles in the forest. Sequoia needles very much resemble Red Cedar and Juniper, however in my observations, seem more loosely arranged. The needles of the Redwood's needles were similar, however the lower branches bore needles more broad and flat - this way they can catch more available light. The needles seen above have less evaporative surface, thus retaining moisture better in hot, dry, exposed environments.

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Crimson Columbine was by far one of the most unique looking flowers I saw on my trip. This particular fellow I found growing streamside in the shady Sequoia woods. They are a member of the Ranuncluaceae (Buttercup family), suggested by their lobed 3-part leaves and conspicuous many stamen. This flower would be considered nodding and spurred. Now perhaps it is a good thing I didn't know their edibility when hiking or else this man might be missing his head. The raw flowers are reportedly sweet and flavorful and the leaves may be thoroughly boiled and eaten as well. Noting the toxicity of many members of this family I would heed caution in consuming it in quantity, particularly its leaves.

Seep Spring Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus)
Is this not the most fun plant name to recite aloud? Just try it- I'm telling you, you won't be able to stop. I found this flower encircling a small spring en route to the falls in Yosemite. I've come across many species of Monkey flower on this trip, understandably with as many as 150 species in this genus, a large number of them in North America. Monkey flowers have opposite leaves, this one bearing lobed leaves that become deeply lobed closer to the stem. According to Wiki, this plant concentrates sodium chloride and other salts from the soil in which it grows and so Native Americans used it as a salt substitute to flavor wild game; the whole plant is edible though very salty and bitter unless thoroughly cooked.

Wolf Lichen (Letharia vulpina)

This lichen, looking less neon here as it is beginning to dry out, grew in bright green, ecto-cooler patches on the sides of trees. Against dark brown or reddish bark, its color was vivid. It is considered a fructicose lichen meaning that it is many branched. Due to its vulpinic acid, toxic when consumed, Ranger Phaedra informed me it was once used as wolf poison, hence its name.

Rabbitbush (Chrysothamnus spp.)
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)
I feature Rabbitbush and Sagebrush because they were so prevalent in the in both the desert landscape of the canyons as well as the arid lands of California. As far as I know Rabbitbush does not have any edibility however the flowers were used as a yellow dye. The seeds of Sagebrush were used by Native peoples, eaten raw or dried and ground into a meal, although they are said to be very bitter. I will remember Sagebrush for the amazing fragrance it lent to the air during a hard rain.

Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
This many branching sunflower I found growing beside a dried up riverbed in Horseshoe Canyon. If you remember, this is where my father and I hiked to see the petroglyphs. Perhaps ancestors of this very plant went to feed the ancients peoples who called this canyon home. The seeds are edible raw and also have a history of being dried and ground into a fine meal which was made into gruel or sometimes cakes (with the addition of grease) making them handy to take on longer journeys- kind of like an old school granola bar! I saw this plant not only in Utah and California but in great abundance through the prairie states often growing on the side of the road as a weed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Princeton Prairie Plants

Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)

After our venture into the Redwoods, it was time to head for home. However, on the way we passed through Princeton, Illinois, home to my sweet Grammy and Grampy as well as my Aunt Debby and Uncle Rick. Yearly as a little girl and more recently as an adult, I have been out to this small town and farming community, however it hasn't been until the last couple of years that I've begun to discover its native plant communities. You see, much of Princeton's land, like much of Illinois and the neighboring prairie states have been stripped of most of their prairie grasses, replaced by large-scale farming. I am thankful for our abundance of food, but much of this agriculture is corn and soybeans,  most of which is fed into poor-quality foods, livestock or gasoline tanks. And so I say, grow, Switch-grass, Indian Grass, Prairie Drop-seed, Red-top, Little and Big Blue Stem, grow!

Rick is a dragonfly extraordinaire, even discovering his very own dragonfly, species formerly unrecognized, during his most recent travels this past spring. So although these long-winged beauties as well as quick-jumping hoppity frogs are his first love, while wading through wetlands and walking quiet trails  in search of these critters, he's gotten to know quite a few of the prairie plants. Thus upon my arrival, he promptly took me out to meet the locals at the Hennepin and Hopper Lakes restored wetlands and prairie lands...thank you, Rick!

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)


Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)-this is the Illinois state flower and endangered

Partridge Pea (Cassia fasciculata)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) - a well known immune system strengthener. The roots can be decocted and/or flowers steeped as a tea and taken as a preventative when immunity is threatened. The tincture made of roots and/or flowering parts can be taken at the onset of symptoms. Besides being an immuno-modulator and immune stimulant, it is also antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory.

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) flower

Could this be a Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) acorn? It was by far the largest acorn I've ever seen- over 1" wide - and it appears as if it had quite the fringe around its cap, now dried. Check back at my To the West! post to learn more about Bur Oak 

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
While in Illinois, my father and I were also treated with a trip to Starved Rock State Park. Here we climbed many a stair to the stop of a large flat rock outcrop-upon which a small village had actually once been erected- and saw views of the Illinois River. We marveled at the blotches of red amidst the fading green leaves, and with a chill in the air, we knew fall was certainly on its way. We enjoyed lunch at the Lodge, which I would highly recommend to anyone passing through the area- lots of delicious, creative, and local foods. The lodge was built by the CCC back in the day and so is constructed with large heavy wooden beams, evident from the inside, complete with hand-hewn benches and an enormous fireplace. Lovely. Thank you Grammy and Grampy!

And thank you, Debby, who was more than happy to help answer my plethora of publishing questions!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rarefied Redwoods

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) - these trees are in fact one of the two trees (the other, Metasequoia glyptostrodoides, is native to China) related to the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantem). They are members of the same subfamily Sequoioideae, found in the family Cupressaceae.

Redwood National Park was absolutely enchanting.

On our first day at the park, about mid-morning, my father and I started out on Miner's Ridge Trail. After walking about 20 minutes, we'd passed many a moderately tall and rather skinny tree, all the while remarking to one another, “Hey this one is kinda big, maybe this one!” We had been pointed this direction by a friendly but not so convincingly knowledgeable visitor's assistant and were beginning to have our doubts if we were indeed in an "old growth" redwood forest. After all the young man had said, “You can't miss 'em!” 

Good thing we kept on hiking because within minutes we rounded the bend and it was as if we'd walked through a time portal, suddenly standing amidst the forest of the dinosaurs. Towering redwoods with thick shreddy bark stood over 300 feet tall, many encircled by woody growths called "burls" at their base. Ferns waved in the light breeze, some so tall they grazed my armpits. The largest wood sorrel I've ever seen blanketed the forest floor, each of the three leaflets imprinted with what looked like a white fingerprint and upon turning them over, were painted a deep purple. Horesetail grew dense, like our familiar cat-tails, in the slow-flowing streams.
Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana) - this sorrel is distinctive in its white veins and solitary pink flower. Edible like all the other Oxalis!
Underside of Redwood Sorrel

These old-growth redwood forests truly are the forests of the dinosaurs, or at least it is believed they are from what we know of that period, the Eocene era. The perpetual fog, shelter from the shoreline, year-round moderate temps, as well as generous precipitation (25 - 100" rainfall / yr) have allowed these forests to persist in their prehistoric state. The abundant horsetail, ferns, and mosses only support this theory as all these were the first plants on the ecological scene, reproducing by spores rather than flowers.
Unknown to me! Ferns are a whole new territory...any of my fern-loving readers know?
Western Five-Finger Fern (Adiantum aleuticum)
Western Sword Fern - so I think!
Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) - characteristically found growing on tree stumps, particularly Big Leaf Maple, and rocks; also tends to be a smaller fern in comparison to the mostly large  ferns found in the Redwoods

My father and I camped on Gold Bluffs Beach and though the winds were a bit strong they were still rather mellow compared to the Outer Banks. The temps were chilly and the skies were mostly cloudy, further enhancing the mystery of this land. How novel it was to see folks walking about their camps and along the shore in hats, vests, and turtleneck sweaters. I bundled up, took off my shoes and let the choppy white waves wash over my feet, working the sand between my toes and inadvertently soaking my jeans rolled up to the knee. I had traveled from the shores of the Atlantic on the Outer Banks to the shores of the Pacific in Northern California. What a beautiful country we live in, one could explore it endlessly.

Speaking of was gray-black here, made up of finely ground ancient river and cliff rock. In place of shells, smooth stone of every color laid in piles at low tide. Using my Crocs like two small baskets, I filled them to the heels with these coastal gems. The rivers here flow north instead of south and I was told by a kindly inn-keeper this has much to do with all rock washed ashore.
Northern California coast

Though on the other side of the country, in a land I'd never before visited, I felt a connection to this place. The lush vegetation of the dense forest offered a familiarity, whereas the treetops shrouded by clouds and the rocky cliffs overlooking a seemingly endless ocean seemed to veil my ever really “knowing” this place. These are traits offered by all wild places as well as those I try most to cultivate in my own daily existence: the known and the unknown. Here, the contrast was stark.

Oh, and I can't forget the surprisingly graceful creatures we saw on the second evening around dusk, one of which was bellowing out his manly mating call...hey ladies, get a load of these antlers!
Wild Elk
Thank you Redwoods!

Friday, September 9, 2011

King's Canyon and Yosemite, California

Driving into California on "the Loneliest Road in the US", we rolled along atop a continuously unfurling carpet of purple-gray sagebrush and happy-yellow rubber rabbit bush, bordered on either side by tall red-barked dark-green needled Jeffrey Pines, gazing at the the white-rocked Sierra Nevadas on the horizon. I felt as if my heart my leap out of my chest. I tried to snap pics from the car and was elated when my father announced he needed a pit stop on the side of the road, allowing me to wander a ways up and down the road in pure awe.

It smells different here. Evergreens and Cedar mingled with dry dusty air. Did I say dry? Clothes dry in seconds, nose bleeds happen at random, and skin about my ankles resembles chalk.

I believe my heart actually did leap from my chest and landed with a splash! at the sight of Mono Lake. This is a crystal clear blue glacier lake, featured in many of John Muir's writings on California. This time I insisted we pull the car over and I ran as close up to it as I possibly could, opening my arms and lungs in an attempt to draw just a bit of it moisture in.

However, upon entering the "village" of Mono Lake just outside ethereal California experience abruptly disinegrated. My father and I found ourselves at a bustling gas station complete with over-priced gift shop with Muir's name and photo stamped upon every magnet / t-shirt / keychain possible, espresso bar, cocktail bar, sandwich shop, a live band blaring away outside, and not to mention, charging $4.50/gallon. However, this was only a taste of the "Yosemite Experience" , for my father and I had rather naively followed his vehicle's GPS unit into Yosemite National Park simply to get to King's Canyon National Park just south of here. Let me just say, do not attempt Tioga Pass (the main road-windy and mountainous) at 8pm at night after 10hrs of driving on Labor Day weekend.

I'll return to Yosemite in just a bit.

So we eventually find our way to King's Canyon - after an overnight at a Fresno Motel - and thanks to an amazingly helpful and kind ranger named Mary--thank you, Mary!!--found a lovely campsite just outside the park in Sequoia National Forest completely to ourselves, without any of the hub-bub of a busy campground. We camped beneath towering Sugar Pines and beside Sequoia stumps the size of cars.

Here we hiked in the evening to the Boole tree- this tree measures 113 in circumference- and bestows a strong presence to the woods surrounding and supporting it. We had to revisit it the next morning for the simple fact that it was too much tree to take in in just one sitting.

While in the park we also hiked through an extensive Sequoia Grove. We had marveled at several large trees on display the day before upon entering the park, however to walk amidst them in a forest is a whole different experience. These trees are so big it would take 20 people with arms outstretched to surround one's trunk and they stand stories tall- some 250ft tall.  They are estimated to be 2000-3000 years old with dead trees standing and lying about for easily 1000 years longer since the wood is not subject to fungus and therefore not quickly decomposed.

So after our splendid stay in King's Canyon, we headed back to Yosemite.

We re-entered in the region of the park known as Wawona, passing the Yosemite Lodge (rates start at $385), numerous markets, and a golf course. Overwhelmed, we sought the help of a ranger at the visitor center.  This man was quite friendly and informative, but I can't say after a run-down of  "Well you could camp in the park, but considering this weekend we're filled to capacity approaching our mark of 5million visitors, it might be difficult to find an unreserved spot..sure you can camp in the backcountry but you have to get a permit first and we'll have to figure out what trails still have permits available...oh and you'll have to rent one of these 3lb bear canisters for your food...oh, the half dome, sure you can do that, but you'll have to call ahead to reserve one of the 400 permits we dole out daily to climb it...and a fire, well here, just fill out this permit...and you can pick up this trail here on the other side of the park only about two hours away...and this other trail over here about another hour away...and then make your way over here where you can hop on a shuttle bus with 100 other visitors...and don't forget to check out the watercolor classes happening over at the studio...and these should help you some," quickly piling up a stack of Yosemite maps, trail brochures, and activity pamphlets on the counter before us, made us feel any less overwhelmed.

We spent the evening sorting and planning and over the course of the next three days, miraculously, found the nature of Yosemite, experiencing just a taste, a tiny morsel, of the beauty and wilderness that Muir experienced in his explorations of and communion with this area over 125 years ago.

Camping in the National Forest just outside the park, we hiked to the Chilnuala Falls in Wawona the first day, climbing 2400ft up over 4.5miles, through a forest of Oak, Jeffrey Pine, Cedar, and Manzanita, and over granite slabs of rock. The sun was hot, but the breeze was cool, and the views were phenomenal.

The second day we moved into the Yosemite Valley, hiking to Taft Peak and Sentinel Dome. Sentinel Dome providing sweeping views of the mountain-tops and valleys in every direction. Here I laid eyes upon other Muir admirations such as Cathedral Peaks, El Capitan, Mt. Ritter, and Yosemite Falls. I also enjoyed a wonderful wildflower walk with a ranger name Phaedra at Bridalveil Falls Campground, finally learning the names and some uses for these west coast plant beauties

I promise plant pics and info as soon as I get more wifi and time to sort through them all!!

On our last day we explored the Pacific Crest Trail and Tuolumne Meadows. Here my father and I climbed to an unmarked granite dome, claiming it our own with the name "Let's GO!" Dome, jogging across it flat-top surface, and gazing down to the meadow and across the nearby domes around us. I envisioned simply running and jumping from one granite dome to the next. I finished off the hike with a celebratory dip in the icy cold falls of the Tuolumne River below that followed us along the trail.

After a winding drive through the mountains of northern California, we are today leaving the town of Eureka and heading onto our final exploration before heading back to PA, Redwood National Forest. The Sequioas are large around, but these are towering tall. We should also get a taste of the coast and some protected prairie land.

Oh...and we did pass through the infamous Humboldt County, where I ran  into this big fella...Bigfoot!!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Canyonlands, Utah

Oh my...holy...freakin' sandstone mesas, buttes, and canyons!  Utah has proven to be far more breath-taking than I ever could have imagined. I knew this state was known for its alien-like sandstone formations and deep canyons, but never would I have expected the stratified rock of every earthly color possible.

My father and I visited Canyonlands National Park and though we'd only planned on one day here, spent three days instead. We hiked many short trails the first few days, seeing the ancient granaries still in pristine condition from the native peoples- we happened to be here in the midst of a soaking rainstorm and we literally had to cling to the side of the slickrock butte while scaling down its smooth side, as well as wide overlooks of the canyons and surrounding White Rim below- this is formed by salt deposits. However, the trail that took the cake was the Murphy Loop Trail. Here we descended 1400ft into the canyon, reaching its very bottom, walking a wash. The steps were steep and guided us in short switchbacks up and down the canyon's side and the wide open sky baked us in the hot desert sun. It was like being inside a giant blue sky, red sandstone oven, and it was beautiful.

We also took a dusk-time visit to Horseshoe Canyon, 30m down a dirt road into the middle of nowhere, driving by nothing but mesa, sagebrush and cactus, and having to stop for the periodic cow or horse crossing- these guys were completely free-roaming, not a ranch in sight for miles. Here we camped the night in the parking lot and descended into the canyon the next morning to see the petroglyphs left by ancient peoples believed to have lived in 1000 - 2000BC.

The soil here is crushed red sandstone, some of it bleached white by sun and time, however it supports a hardy collection of desert-loving plants, such as Prickly Pear clustered together in tight communities, various fragrant Artemisia (Sage), cottony members of the Goosefoot family, Juniper trees, and Pinyon Pine.

Cottony Goosefoot

Prickly Pear

 Unfortunately I will have to keep this post short, as we are quickly continuing on our way. We spent the night here in Ely, Nevada, at the Historic Nevada Hotel and Casino. The hotel was lovely, full of old trinkets and antique furniture, however the downstairs and outside of the building was a circus of flashing lights, dings, and whistles- though we did enjoy complimentary margaritas here! We are now going to drive the "loneliest road in the US" through Nevada and into California where we'll explore King's Canyon and hug the giant Sequioas.

Oh...and one more thing...I just must brag about summitting my very first 14,000ft mountain, while in Colorado, Mt.Gray, which my father and I named Mt.Francis in honor of a sweet elderly kitty that passed at home while we've been away.