California Bay Laurel – one of the scents of home

The idea of home is a strange one to me.  Moving as often as I have my version of home is more of a set of environmental conditions rather than a living space or a house.  Last week I had an opportunity to pass through the place that feels most like home.

It is a cloudy, damp, foggy portion of land on the northwest coast of California, a place where the land falls sharply into the chilly Pacific and the beaches are as often rocky as sandy.  The hills are steep sided with sensuously rounded tops, sometimes grassy, other times thickly covered in evergreen trees, and much of the region is protected open space.

West Marin, looking at Bolinas and north along the San Andreas fault. Inverness Ridge and Drake’s Bay are visible in the background.

When I was little, West Marin, more specifically the Point Reyes National Seashore, Inverness, Tomales Bay, and Mt. Tamalpais were where I spent much of my time rambling about, climbing trees, playing in shallow cold streams, swimming in the ocean, eating berries, and watching the wildlife.  Whenever I can I return to let the fog play over my skin and to breath the air flavored with the scents of California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica), Douglas Fir needles (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and invasive eucalyptus trees.

To the east of the San Andreas fault the land is open, primarily coastal prairie, with the trees safely nestled into the hollows or up against boulders to avoid the strong ocean winds.  The California Bay trees are particularity well adapted to this environment and form dense wind-sculpted stands, looking like glacier scoured boulders.

Low California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) trees sculpted by the ever-present coastal winds

Umbellularia californica trees are tolerant of a variety of conditions and wide spread through California.  They reach into southern Oregon, but, as is true of many plants, California is their epicenter.  In stressful conditions, windy or dry, they only grow to a few feet in height, more of a resilient shrub than a tree.  Where they are protected from the wind and have a good supply of water they reach tremendous proportions, 150 feet or more tall, narrow and slender if competing with redwoods and Douglas fir trees, broad and robust when growing in the open.  Colonies of these trees will sometimes root-graft together, covering a portion of a hill in a single tangled mass of roots and trunks.  The wood decays quickly in the damp and large California bay trees often have multiple hollow trunks, providing homes to numerous animals and giving them a dark and mysterious appearance. The trunks are often covered in dense moss.

Umbellularia californica trunk with a characteristic coat of moss

Umbellularia californica is the only species within its genus and is known by a great variety of common names, Pepperwood, Spicebush, Cinnamon Bush, Peppernut, Oregon Myrtle, Mountain Laurel, Headache Tree, Balm of Heaven, and California Bay to list just a few.  The variety of names reflects its wide range of uses, uses that include medicine, food, insect repellent, timber, and, oddly, currency.  In the early 1930s the bank in the town of North Bend Oregon closed and the local currency collapsed.  The town adopted a currency of coins carved from the wood of this tree.  In North Bend, this currency is still legal tender, though few coins survive to this day.

Leaves, flower buds, and a ripe bay nut

The leaves are rich in pungent oils.  As children we used to put green leaf-covered branches on the fire to watch them flare up as the oil spat and burned.  When dried the leaves are as good for seasoning as the Mediterranean bay laurel, though much stronger and more spicy in flavor.  As with eucalyptus leaves, inhaling the steam from boiled leaves does wonders for stuffy sinuses, and the bay nuts can be roasted and eaten once the fleshy exterior is peeled off.  The fruit looks a bit like the small wild avocado fruits one finds in Central and South America, which makes sense as both the California bay laurel and avocados are in the Laurel (Lauraceae) family.

A dense understory of ferns is common where California bay trees are large

Where the California bay laurels are large and healthy a dense understory of shrubs and ferns is common, California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) are particularly abundant in West Marin.

Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) growing under a large, multi-trunked California bay laurel

These evergreen ferns grow large, individual fronds often reaching 2.5 to 3 feet in length.  The fronds are waxy and leathery studded long the edges with small teeth and points.  Most people are familiar with these ferns from the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi, the place the Ewoks live.

Western Shield Ferns look like primordial Christmas Ferns

For those of you in New England the western sword fern will be immediately recognizable as an enormous Christmas fern.  One can easily imagine tough mouthed dinosaurs grazing on these giant ferns.  Today they are rarely eaten by anything except when the fronds are young, or an intrepid insect cuts free a chunk of leaf.

Home is the gentle drip of tangy flavored fog-born moisture dripping from the leaves of the California bay laurels falling onto glistening ferns.  The deeply textured gray of low hanging fog drifting through the forest, the salty bite of cold wind whipping down from the north Pacific, and the constant rustle of animals and water in the underbrush.

One of my homes.

Club-Mosses on the mountain

A few days ago I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker on an alpine botany field trip for a class a friend of mine is teaching.  The highest and largest alpine environment in Vermont is atop Mt. Mansfield, two hundred acres of exposed rock, lichens, and a delicate assortment of tiny plants bordered by dense krummholz forest housing several rare bird species.

Mt Mansfield ridge trail

This areas is one of only three tiny regions of Vermont where alpine tundra environments exist, and part of a very small handful of places on the East Coast.  These places are relicts from the end of the last ice age, extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, home to plants that are usually found much further north.  The growing season is short, nutrients are in short supply, and wind stresses are high, all of which result in slow growing, long lived plants that do not colonize open areas well.  Visitors are encouraged to walk only on the rocky areas, keeping off of the easily damaged vegetation.

I had been eager to visit the peak of Mt. Mansfield for some time because it is one of the only places in Vermont that a certain small clubmoss lives.  I mentioned this to the botany students and during a rest break one of them got my attention and asked if the little plant he was pointing to was the one I had mentioned.

Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia appalachiana)

It was one of the smallest examples of Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia appalachiana) that I had seen anywhere, but it was indeed the plant I was looking for.

Clubmosses are really cool and predate flowering plants by an embarrassingly large span of time.  They are not really moss of any type, though they bear a superficial resemblance to the true mosses.  Mosses themselves are not true plants, having no vascular tissue, the plant equivalent of our circulatory system.  Mosses rely on diffusion to distribute water and nutrients and this imposes strict limits on their size.  Clubmosses are more akin to ferns and conifers: they have simple hair-like roots (true mosses have no roots), they have vascular tissue, and, at one point in the extremely distant past (300+ million years ago), their close cousins were the dominant large vegetation reaching one hundred feet above the ground.  Now most clubmosses are small, only a few inches tall, although in the Amazon I did encounter one waist high clubmoss near an overgrown pond.

Unknown Peruvian clubmoss. It grew to just above my waist.

I was interested in the Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss, Huperzia appalachiana, because several years ago I spent a summer in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, climbing about on steep cliffs looking for this plant and trying to figure out how to measure any change populations might experience as the climate changes.  It likes acidic, well drained soils over igneous (or highly metamorphic) bedrock that receive frequent moisture, and, unusual for a clubmoss, direct sunlight.  It hybridizes easily with several other clubmosses, Shining Clubmoss (Huperzia lucidula), Northern Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia selago), and Huperzia appressa, which some people do not distinguish from Huperzia appalachiana, making the identification question particularly vexing where the ranges overlap.

The Huperzia genus was recently split from the Lycopodium genus, which is where many of the more familiar clubmosses reside.  Like many of the Huperzia, the Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss grows from a dense basal cluster and, unlike many of the Lycopodium, it does not creep about over the ground.

Huperzia appalachiana – note the bands of white spore capsules

No-one is certain how long Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss lives.  The best answer I could get from a sharp fellow at Miami University in Ohio was, “At least seventeen years.”  Not a very satisfying answer, and he knew it.

One way to estimate the age is to count the bands of spore capsules on the stalk, those little white bits that looks like tiny eggs or pale ticks in the image above.  Each band correlates to roughly one year of growth.  Unfortunately, no-one knows how old the plant has to be before it starts producing those, and they don’t always produce them each year.  With some Huperzia species you can count the rings of gemmae, odd little cup-shaped brackets the plant produces that contain a tiny asexually produced plant that is dropped onto the ground in place of a spore when conditions are good.  The gemmae look very different from the microphylls, which is what clubmoss leaves are called.

Huperzia appalachiana
The gemmae are the little 3-part flanges near the top of the plant – further down the empty brackets are visible

Another way to judge the age is to count the bands of vegetation where the microphylls are pressed up close to the stem and where they spread out.  Each spreading ring indicates spring growth.

All that is good in theory, unfortunately Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss produces gemmae in a haphazard fashion and, unlike the photo above, often does not have those nice alternating bands of growth.  Hence the, “At least seventeen years,” answer to my question.

Clubmosses grow in a variety of forms and have been used for some rather unlikely purposes in the past.  The spores they produce are tiny and highly flammable, so much so that they were used as flash powder in old time photography.  Condoms were dusted with clubmoss spores to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, and diapers are sometimes dusted with the spores to prevent rashes.  Today, we mainly use living clubmosses in garlands and ancient clubmosses in our coal burning power-plants.

One of the great things about living in New England is the wonderful variety of local clubmosses.  They are delightfully archaic.  Deceptively so, considering that they have been living for well over 300 million years and are still common in many places world-wide.

Tree Ground-Pine (Lycopodium dendroideum)

Discoveries in the Moss

Yesterday I saw an unfamiliar flower blooming outside my window atop the moss covered rocky ledge and I went outside to see what it was.  It looked a little like soaproot (Chlorogalum  spp.) flowers, but those do not grow in Vermont.  As it turned out the “flowers” were the unfurled, pubescent new leaves of a young striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), a very common plant in New England, and not as interesting as the other thing I found outside my window.

Crane Fly pupating

You see crane flies (Tipulidae spp.) often, they look like large mosquitoes and often go by the common name “mosquito hawk”.  Unfortunately, they only look like mosquitoes and do not hunt them.  Fortunately, they only look like mosquitoes and do not act like them.

I didn’t know much about crane flies, so I did a little reading about them and now know minimally more than I did.  Not enough to identify this species unfortunately.  When I first found the pupating insect it was holding its wings wide, but when I returned with a camera it had folded them back along its body.

Crane fly wings

The larvae of some species live under water, much like caddis fly larvae, other species have terrestrial larvae.  In either case the larvae eat dead vegetation.  The larvae of terrestrial species have tough skin, leading to the common name “leather jack”, which I think is pretty cool.  Skunks and moles eat the grubs, as, I expect, do birds when they can get them.  The adults of most species do not eat, and in some species only the males have wings.

I turned my back for a minute to take a photo of a leaf-hopper sitting nearby, and when I turned back, the crane fly had gone.

Leaf-hopper or Sharpshooter, not sure which

Hunting around with the half-formed though that if I had seen one, there might be others (always worth checking, sometimes it pays off).  I did not find any others hatching, but there was evidence that others had hatched recently.

Case left behind by a hatched crane fly

Insects are one of the most mysterious and magical things.  They transform themselves in ways that seem impossible, ones that pupate completely breaking down their bodies and reconfiguring them in radically different configurations.  Tests on butterfly caterpillars indicate that, despite pretty much liquifying themselves, they retain memories and lessons learned through the process.  Insects are so successful that nearly every ecosystem and terrestrial living thing is now dependent on them, if not directly, then removed from direct dependence by only a step or two.

We don’t know how many species exist, and often fail to grasp their importance.  We try to kill the insects we dislike with poisons and within a few generations they develop immunities.  They are mind bogglingly tough and adaptable, despite their individual fragility.

They are ubiquitous, fundamental, and wondrous.

Bryophyta, Ancient and Tough

An ancient creature is waking up.  These creatures are small in stature but extremely tough.  They have been around longer than plants, although we often lump all green sessile things together.  Mosses are different though.

They have neither roots, nor vascular tissue, the plant equivalent of our circularity system.  They anchor to the substrate with little hold-fasts, somewhat like those giant algae, sea-weeds, and they drink though diffusion and osmosis.  They do well in places that are rich in airborne moisture.

Another things mosses lack is flowers and the associated seeds.  Like ferns, club-mosses, horsetails, and fungi mosses reproduce by spores.  By the millions.  They invest in quantity over quality and don’t pack any food or protection for their offspring before they cast them to the wind.  The spores will only germinate under perfect conditions.  Orchid growers are familiar with this problem, as orchids try the seed equivalent of this strategy.  Their dispersal strategy is like colonizing the galaxy by putting people in zip-lock bags and flinging them out of the solar system in the hopes that one of them eventually hit an earth-like planet.

This time of year the capsules that held the spores look like fossilized wind-socks.

Mosses are incredibly tough and individual stems from a colony can be very long lived.  A common way of judging the age of stair-step moss is the count the feather-like branches on a stem.  Five and seven year old moss stems are common and there are other mosses much longer lived than that.  An established moss colony may been in place for thousands of years.  Especially colonies in cold environments.

In the northern hemisphere we tend to think of plants and animals going dormant in response to cold.  If you can prevent the water in your tissues from freezing the danger for plants becomes one of dehydration.

Mosses, as I have said, are tough.  And Ancient.  They have some tricks they have learned over the hundreds of millions of years they have been around.  They learned these tricks before the ancestors of most of the things we see around us evolved.  Dinosaurs are latecomers to the party by the standards of the mosses.

Mosses dry up.  In a way the lessons learned as a spore transfer to the adults.  Most of their water evaporates, and as it does so the moss tissues curl in predictable ways.  The pores through which they breath close. Mosses can wait a long time like that.  Some mosses are so good at surviving this way that they grow in deserts.

Air in cold environments often contains less moisture than desert air.  Vermont has been even dryer than usual and many of the fir-cap mosses are still tightly furled, waiting for water.  Many look like the dry spires in the picture above.

Others have found enough water to wake up.

Like sponges, moss colonies trap water and fine debris.  The debris falls to the ground in the suddenly still water and becomes a nutrient supply for the mosses once they rehydrate.  Much like flowers they open as their tissues fill with water.

The growing tip opens as it hydrates revealing a tight furl of nascent microphylls (moss and clubmoss leaves) tinged a rosy hue.  Cold is well and good for living slowly, but growth requires warmth and the tips of the moss are shaped like little parabolic reflectors.  They trap both water and the sun’s light.  The reddish color may help them adsorb the long-wave understory light once the forest above leafs out.

From now through summer the new spore capsules will ripen, and come fall and winter they will scatter their spores across the landscape to drift with the wind, flow with the water, and run across the snow.

Unlike the poor fellows in zip-lock bags hurtling between the stars, the mosses have stacked the odds a little for their offspring.

Where water splashes moss may grow.  Where wind dies and lets drop what it carries moss may grow.  Where snow is late to melt moss may grow.

NOTE: The three close-in photos were taken though a 10x hand-lens held to the front camera of an iPhone4.