Thanksgiving Sunday morning, Jacques Cayouette, a senior botanist for Agriculture Canada – Biodiversity division, and some of his colleagues, came to Beaux Arbres on a quest for rare ferns. They were interested in our farm’s infertile and abandoned pastures as likely sites for Botrychium (now called Sceptridium) ferns.
The pastures on the farm were abandoned more than sixty years ago. Sumacs and raspberries are creeping in, followed by black cherry and white pine, at the edges nearest to remnant woods, but most of the pastures remain open. The sandy soil is so dry and infertile that lichens dominate and the old field plants – common milkweed and goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and tower mustard – struggle.
I had invited a few botanically minded friends from the Pontiac, and we joined Jacques’ group as they spread out over the nearest old pasture. They soon found two species: Grape Fern (Sceptridium dissectum) and Leathery Grape Fern (S. multifidum). They are small ferns, a few inches high, with one green frond and one upright fertile frond each. These are the two commoner species. We were able to find quite a number of each, which allowed us to get a good feel for the considerable variation found within each species.
Feeling chuffed, the professional botanists kept their keen eyes focussed for grape fern. The prize was St. Lawrence Grape Fern (S. rugulosum), a genuine rarity that only grows in open sites on fine sands in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence area. Eureka! The botanists found some specimens they were quite sure were the rare St. Lawrence Grape Fern. Jacques bagged a specimen to take back to the lab for confirmation.
Given the variation within the species, especially within S. dissectum, and the rather subtle differences between the species, I am not at all sure I have a good feel for what marks a plant as St. Lawrence Grape Fern. It is more rugulose than the other two. Okay. I think I have it. I will have opportunities to revisit our fern site – hey, its just beyond our farm pond – this fall. The grape ferns have an unusual growth cycle. The fronds emerge in late summer – St. Lawrence Grape Fern emerges later than the other two – and last into the winter.
I am very grateful to Jacques for showing me the ferns I would otherwise have overlooked. I used to think the old pastures were not that botanically interesting as they seemed highly disturbed and dominated by common early succession species. I thought the lovely lichens in the lichen crusts were the most interesting thing about them. Now I know that what might well be the rarest species we have on the farm is there in the old sandy pastures.
Yesterday we saw our first red-winged blackbird of the year. Our first male cardinal was singing a couple of weeks ago. Blue jays in the woods are calling their melodious courtship songs that are so unlike their harsh everyday caws. We saw our first turkey vulture of the season at the side of the highway last week. Spring will come.
Reading garden blogs during the winter was great fun. These past couple of weeks, it has been, um, shall we say, less fun. While gardeners in in mid-Atlantic states are posting lovely pictures of their daffodils and hellebores, the best I can do in western Quebec is pretty frost flowers. When even folks in Michigan are blogging about turning their compost piles, it is mighty frustrating to still have two feet of snow. The snow is soggy and rapidly diminishing but big piles still remain. The forecast for last Thursday had been 9°C and rain, and I hoped that the spring chorus of amphibians would begin, but on the actual day, it was colder and the pools were still frozen over. Maybe next week…
My favourite frog, the wood frog, breeds in ephemeral vernal pools and in ephemeral vernal pools only. We see adult wood frogs from time to time in the garden, but I have not heard the quacking of breeding wood frogs on the farm in early spring. Our farm pond, home to a great many green frogs, is spring-fed and present year round. I believe the shallow spring pools in the woods dry too quickly to allow wood frog tadpoles to mature. Fortunately, there is a deep but ephemeral pool beside the gate of the next farm. As soon as there is open water, even before all the ice has gone, the wood frogs will be calling there.
Rue-Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides syn. Anemone thalictroides). Photographed on the Niagara Escarpment near Dundas, Ontario, May 9th, 2011.
In Canada, rue-anemone is restricted to the Carolinian zone of southern Ontario, and it is not common there. It is a true spring ephemeral, disappearing after it sets seeds and spending the summer as a small tuber. Garden varieties of rue-anemone, with pink or pale blue flowers, or double petals, are lovely in shady rock gardens, but I have found them to be a bit miffy, unless one can give them a nice loose, woodsy soil.
The wild rue-anemone in the photo was growing in close proximity to another low-growing ephemeral woodland anemone, wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia). Wood anemone is also Carolinian, with a slightly larger range, and is more common. It can form large patches in rich deciduous woods, to charming effect.