Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Colville Lousewort's

We have four species of lousewort (Pedicularis) growing around our home here in the Colville Delta.  With the different species we get a blooming period from early June through late August, and even a few stragglers into September if it is a warm summer.  The habitat varies from dry polygon ridges to wet sedge meadows; all lousewort are edible though some have a tap root too small to be of much interest.

The genus name, Pedicularis,  means little louse. It was once thought that animals feeding on this plant would become infected with these pests. Wort comes from the old English word meaning flower, giving us lousewort.

The Wooly Lousewort (P. Kanei subsp. Kanei) is the first to appear in the spring, often starting to grow in early June when much of the ground is still covered with snow.  It isn’t uncommon to find the first ones of the season blooming in a small patch of tundra surrounded by snow, a bit of pink in a world of white. To protect itself from the freezing temperatures and cold winds it has developed a covering of dense wool, and before it starts to bloom, it looks so different it could be mistaken for a different plant.  This plant also has the largest tap root of the four and it is good to eat cooked or raw, a good source of starch, and the taste is similar to that of a sweet potato.  It grows 15-20cm/6-8 inches tall from a thick yellow taproot with rose colored corolla.











  Three views of the Woolly in different stages    from early inflorescence white and woolly and as a mature flower.


The next two  louseworts to bloom are the Capitate (P. capitata) and the Purple lousewort (P. sudetica).   The Capitate Lousewort is yellow and prefers dryer ground and can grow in large patches covering several meters in diameter.   The stem is single, growing from a thin rhizome, and the unbranched stem can have up to four flower heads, although one or two are more common. The corolla is yellowish or at times the upper lip can become rose-colored with age. Average height is around 15cm/6 inches.



  The photo on the left shows the rose coloring that the older flowers can acquire, while on the right is one that is all yellow.



The Purple Lousewort (P. sudetica subsp. albolabiata) likes moist to wet tundra and grows either  as a single flowering stem, or in clumps of ten or more flowering stalks from stout rootstock.  These  two plants tend to have a long growing season and overlap the start of the flowering of the fourth species that grows here.  The petals are multicolored,  having a pink corolla with a purple apex that has a white lip.  This species is also referred to as the Sudeten Lousewort.

 Lousewort-Purple_2812  Lousewort-Purple-V_2817






A nice Purple Lousewort  cluster and a close up of the flowering head.

The Whorled Lousewort (P. verticillata) has the most delicate blossoms of the four and you can have a single flowering stalk or many growing in a tight group from a branching taproot.   They like moist meadows and river banks and grow up to 7 inches or 18cm.  Petals are purple with a pink base.

Lousewort-Whorled-V_5396 Lousewort-Whorled_5377






A nice group of Whorled Louseworts on the left with a close up of the flower on the right.

All of our louseworts have eatable tap roots, but other than the Woolly, most are too small to make it worthwhile to collect.  Speaking of collecting, some species of voles collect lousewort tap roots and store them in small caches for the winter.  The vole caches I have found are usually about a cup in quantity.  Since these are such a good food source, the grizzly bear love to search out these vole treasures and feast on them.  I watched one bear work several willow thickets in the river bed, and after a couple hours had consumed a large quantity of stored roots.  I’m sure the voles weren’t too happy about this, but at least they didn’t get eaten on this day.

LaplandRosebay-0439 One last photo showing a yellow Capitate Lousewort blooming next to a Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fresh Snow

The seasons are changing again, a light snow is falling and covering the rust and red colors of the fall tundra.  The soft flakes are of a mixed size, but it isn’t coming down hard enough to completely cover the ground yet.  As I look out the kitchen window in the early dusk of the coming morning , I am treated to the sight of the cow and calf muskox sleeping in our Muskox-Snow_5333yard and partly covered in the falling snow.  They are not in a hurry to get up and start feeding, as both have gotten up, walked in a circle and then laid back down.  At times they were stretched out full length sleeping , while the more normal position has them resting with their head up, as to keep a watch on things in between naps. 


It is hard to grasp that this gentle snow fall with its big flakes is not a common sight for us during the winter.  Most of the time the snowflakes are well rounded and small by the time they reach the ground in our windy climate.  I’m sure that during some stretches of  winter we see the same snow several times, as the wind whips it back and forth and the drifts of winter deepen.


Pendent_Grass-sn_7308The lake has ice around the edges this morning and the red pendent grass (Arctophila fulva) is either weighted down with the fresh snow or frozen in the fresh ice, which doesn’t extend much past the grassy area.








The Willow Ptarmigan are glad to see a bit of snow as they are starting to stick out in the rusty colored tundra since they are almost all white now.  It makes them very nervous and take flight at the first sign of a falcon or snowy owl.  They like to swoop in and hide in and around the buildings where it is harder for a bird of prey to make a diving run to catch one. 

WIPT-flock_flight_5403       Large flock of Willow Ptarmigan taking flight.


One afternoon several years ago I watched as a snowy owl and a flock of 30 willow ptarmigan played keep away.  The owl had the birds cornered at the base of  an old wire bird cage that was 10’ square and 8’ high that I wasn’t using anymore. The owl was perched up on top and when it moved from one side to the other the ptarmigan would quickly run to the other side staying right up against the pen.  This maneuver didn’t give the owl enough room to swoop down and grab one of the ptarmigan. This went on for about 45 minutes before the snowy owl decided it would have better luck some place else.

With the days of fall getting shorter, we now can enjoy the Aurora Borealis again as well as watch the constellations swirl overhead.  It looks like it will be a good winter for sky watching the as the sun has been putting out lots of solar activity that translates into good viewing conditions.

 Aurora Reflections_5139 Aurora Borealis reflecting in the lake.

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.