Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eastern Pacific Gray Whales

Out of death comes life, a concept as old as the first ruminations on life and death itself. This was graphically demonstrated in March when hundreds of people gathered daily to view a nine metre long dead male eastern Pacific gray whale that had washed ashore in an easily accessible area at East Sooke Park.

What a strange mixture of sadness over the death of this rarely seen creature and excitement in being able to view and examine it in such close proximity. Parents brought children to this once in a lifetime opportunity to inspect our marine dwelling relative, from the oldest grandparent to young toddlers, everyone was curious and fascinated by the whale’s appearance. Questions and rumours were flying as to the possible cause of death, kids were seeking answers, “why does….what is…..?”

Everyone wanted to touch it, to run their fingers over the fringed baleen, to wonder at the barnacles and sea lice that festooned it’s massive body, to examine and marvel at a lifeform so different from our own.

Gray whales are very occasional visitors to our local shores. From 15-20,000 pass by Vancouver Island twice a year on their 16,000 km (10,000 mile) annual migrations between their Baja, Mexico calving bays and their Alaskan feeding grounds but they rarely venture into the Straits and inlets (although one small population stays the summer just off the west coast of the island). They are known as baleen whales, as they filter their food through fringed structures on their enormous jaws. Baleen is formed from keratin, the same material that makes fingernails and hair. Grays are the only bottom feeding whale, they roll on their right side and suck in mud from the sea-bottom of the Pacific floor in areas which are rich in amphipods, isopods and tubeworms. The mud soup is filtered through the baleen, leaving small crustaceans, invertebrates and others as their meal. Although they are huge (to 45+ ft or 14m) and have large mouths, they have small throats and would choke on larger prey. Most of their feeding occurs while in the north. You can imagine the enormous amounts of food they need to sustain themselves during the migrations and the months they spend in the south, the females nursing their young, they are known to fast for 3 to 5 months.

East Pacific grays (our coast) were hunted almost to extinction in the 1890’s and again in 1920’s, perhaps only a few hundred remained, till finally in the 1940’s they were given international protection. The Atlantic grays unfortunately were not protected in time and lost their battle for survival and the west Pacific grays (Asian coast) have never really recovered and are still hovering on the verge of extinction. Grays were harvested to provide ingredients for margarine, cosmetics, gelatin, glue, paint, soap, lubricants and lighting oil among other products.

Whales are mammals, like us they breath air and birth live offspring which suckle milk from the mother (50 gal a day for a gray baby). The gestation period is approximately one year and the newborn calves can be 500-680 kg and 4.5 m in length. The mother’s milk has 53% fat content compared with 2% in humans, giving them the energy they need to grow and to prepare for their long journey north. Imagine the mother: spend the summer pregnant and feeding in Alaskan waters, stop feeding in any appreciable amount, then travel 8000 km (5,000 miles) to Baja, birth your calf, nurse it, swim another 8000 km while only having the occasional snack. The mothers have earned the name “devilfish” for their determined protection of their young but I think it is just as likely that they are cranky from hunger! Strange isn’t it, how a human mother is glorified for defending her children while a whale mother is viewed as a devil….

Outside of humans, the main predator of grey whales is the orca and many show signs of battle with teeth marks as lasting evidence of these encounters. Like a floating ecosystem, another embellishment of the gray whale skin are the many barnacles that festoon their massive girth. Colonies can weigh up to several hundred pounds as they hitchhike their way up and down the Pacific coast. They have evolved to time their spawning to the birthing cycles in the southern lagoons; the free swimming barnacle larvae then attach themselves to the whales, like lifelong tourists on an ocean liner. There is one specie of barnacle (Cryptolepas rhachianecti) which is only found on the grays. They do not feed on or harm the whales and scientists use the distinctive barnacle patches to identify individual whales. Another inhabitant of the whale body ecosystem are whale lice, parasites which feed on skin and damaged tissue. These in turn are preyed upon by small silvery fish known as topsmelt, living in symbiosis with the whales much as you’ve probably seen in photographs of small birds cleaning large mammals on the African plains.

Gray whales can live to seventy years and can ingest a massive amounts of polluted material in that time. Many contaminants can float to the ocean floor, where they can accumulate in the bottom dwelling species and are then eaten by the whales, which in turn feed their contaminated milk to their young.

No-one knows why that young male gray whale died, marine animals die all the time and only rarely do we see the evidence so close at hand. We can be grateful for the glimpse it provided into the foreign and fascinating world of marine creatures. Metchosin (Stinking Fish) was named for one such leviathan that washed onto our shores many years ago.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lichen It!

Worm Lichen (Thamnolia vermicularis)
False Pixie Cup (Cladonia sp.)

Walking through the mist shrouded hills in the wet, winter season provides a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the rich, vibrant tapestry of mosses and lichens that cloak the landscape. The number of variations of green, brown and white are astounding, and the diversity of textures, from a velvet smoothness to intricately branching sculptures, to rock hugging crusts is exceptional; surely an artist has been at work.
Lichens are a remarkable adaptation of nature, a combination of a fungus and an algae or in some cases a cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae), who co-inhabit and create a new form of being. They have a mutually beneficial relationship (symbiotic) whereby algae supply nutrients otherwise unavailable to the fungus and the fungus provides a home and protection from a harsh environment to the algae. Renowned BC lichenologist Trevor Goward considers that "Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”.
Are lichenologists born with a creative streak or does their intimate relationship with these strange and wonderful plants stimulate newfound abilities? Consider the names they have given to lichen species: Questionable rock-frog, lipstick cladonia, coastal reindeer, waxpaper, tickertape bone, antlered perfume, fishnet, devil’s matchstick, waterworm, blood-spattered beard, witch’s hair, lettuce lung, false pixie cups…… playful and suggestive, you’d almost think they sat around the bar one long night, inventing names, each more amusing than the one before.
Lichens can grow in the most extreme areas of our planet, albeit very slowly. From the High Arctic to Antarctica, from deserts to ocean shores, some species have been shown to be able to survive temperature extremes, ranging from +100C to -196ºC. The only place you won’t find them is in subterranean caves where there is no light, the algae component need sunlight to photosynthsise and produce food. They are the first species to colonise bare rock, beginning the long process of building ecosystems. They don’t have roots, they take their nourishment from the air, living on trees and shrubs, often high in the canopy, never harming their hosts. They can be found on glass and metal left out too long in the unforgiving elements.
Lichens have served the environment and people well over the millennia. They are an important component of desert and semi-arid ecosystems, partnering with mosses, algae, fungi and other hardy and miniscule plants to form a microbiotic crust that protects the dry landscape from erosion.
They contribute to invertebrate diversity in forests, they supply nesting and camouflage material to birds and insects - lichens are woven into a hummingbird nest, making it almost impossible to find. Lichens are nitrogen fixers, supplying a much needed source of nutrients to enrich forest health and productivity.
Fifty percent of lichens have been shown to have some antibiotic properties. Across many cultures, Usnea species, the “beard” lichens, have traditionally been used to treat wounds. Old Man’s Beard is one species of Usnea that can be found in our woods, it can be distinguished from similar looking but different lichen species by a central white cord that runs through all Usnea species. In “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast”, it is recommended to “slowly pull the lichen lengthwise like a party cracker”, if it is an Usnea species, there will be a tough, somewhat elastic central cord. Being able to recognize these lichens can save your life. If you cut yourself while hiking far from medical services, grab some Usnea and apply to the wound, it is supposed to have antibiotic, antioxidant, antifungal and absorbent properties that can help combat infection until you can get medical assistance. Usnea is purported to be helpful in treating a range of medicals problems: respiratory and urinary conditions; yeast infections, herpes and in treating HIV and it supposedly supplies long term immune system benefits.
Lichens are the subject of research, especially in Japan, for their medicinal qualities. Some lichen species have been used as food, especially during famine times, they are made into soups and flours; generally they have low protein and high carbohydrate levels.
Punctured rock-tripe produces the scarlet colour used in some Scottish tartans while speckled horsehair and waxpaper lichens produce yellow and brown dyes. Wolf lichen, so named because of its alleged ability to poison wolves, was a valuable trading commodity between Interior and Chilkat First Nations-who used it as a yellow dye in their blanket making. Antlered or oakmoss perfume is a slow-growing (2mm/yr) lichen, commonly found on trees and shrubs throughout our Coastal Douglas-fir region. It has long been used as a fixative in the production of perfume.
Lichens are very susceptible to pollution and are being used as environmental indicators by scientists monitoring air quality; alder trunks are usually festooned with lichens but downwind of a pollution source the bark can be bare, indicating problems that can affect the rest of us; they act as our canary in the coal mines. They perform like organic sponges, absorbing radioactive pollutants at high rates, analysis can then show which pollutants are in the air. This doesn’t bode well for the many species of animals that use them for food, who can ingest high levels of contaminants. Studies have shown that some wild meat can have ten to one hundred times the levels of contaminants as farmed beef.
Lichens are strange and fascinating organisms which exhibit remarkable properties. Beyond their own intrinsic values, they hold the promise of exciting medical and monitoring advances. Next time you are outdoors, here in Metchosin or elsewhere, check the bark on alders and see what it can tell you about the air quality in your neighbourhood.

Usnea tincture from: (

Fill a jar of your choice with Usnea (the more freshly harvested the better, although this plant contains so little water that it's hard to distinguish fresh from dry).

~ Pack the jar full, but not crammed. Then fill the jar again with 100 proof vodka.

~ Make sure the alcohol totally covers the plant material.

~ Label your jar with the date and contents and cover it with a lid.

~ Let it sit in a cabinet for six weeks (feel free to open it up occasionally and taste it). It's not necessary to shake it.

~ After six weeks strain off the liquid, compost the Usnea, and pour your extract back into the jar. It will have turned brownish-orange.

~ You can pour some into amber dropper bottles for easier use.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Seeds: Collection, Cleaning, Storage and Germination

Seeds: Collection, Cleaning, Storage and Germination

One of the most enjoyable aspects of restoration is the collection of propagules for your project. After you have surveyed your site and reference sites and determined which species are most likely to have been present and which species you will spend your efforts on replanting, you have the opportunity to search for these species.
Instead of report writing and viewing scenes of ecological devastation, you have the pleasure of hiking through forests, wetlands and grasslands where you can take some time to appreciate the beauty of the world around you and perhaps enjoy new botanical/natural history opportunities.

Plant Identification

Underlying this pleasant activity though is the quest to restore a functioning ecosystem into some semblance of its previous make-up. Therefore, if you are in any doubt as to plant identification, it is best to locate promising populations with the help of an expert, preferably during the flowering season, as many vascular plants are easier to identify when they are in bloom. (GOERT flowering dates link here). You will need to receive permission to hike and collect from these areas. Identify the healthiest and most vigourous plants, these will likely produce the highest quality seeds. It is helpful to mark their locations in such a way that you can return with a great deal of assurance to the exact location and be able to identify the plants in their new, less obvious stage as seed containers. GPS units can be a huge help in locating your mother populations, but a little brightly coloured tape can be beneficial narrowing down those last few metres. It is also useful to collect or photograph representative seedheads and mount them as a learning/identification tool.
It is most important to collect propagules from within your restoration site or from the closest populations; researchers are discovering new information on species every day, some species that have been identified as a single species are in fact separate species, with different ecological preferences. Collect from the closest similar habitats at the least.

Seed Collection

Consult with local knowledgeable sources as to the appropriate time to collect seeds (seed collection dates link), it is better to go earlier than is recommended and have to return for mature seeds than to go late and miss the seeds for the season. Many factors can influence when seeds are ripe and the quantity of seeds you might find: early and late seasonal changes, moisture and drought, browsing by predators, elevation and geographic variations, disturbance regimes, the plants’ own individual requirements and other vagaries of which we have no or incomplete knowledge. Garry oaks (Quercus garryana) are known as mast-fruiters, plants that produce acorns in abundance only irregularly, some years they are as hard to find as hen’s teeth. Combine their possible paucity with predation by band-tailed pigeons, Stellar’s jays and grey squirrels and infestation by various weevils and you can be lucky to find any suitable acorns in some years. This is not only a problem with Garry oaks, many plants are sensitive to climatic variations and have life cycles and predation rates that can make finding a good seed supply a real challenge some years. Consider when you are harvesting in lean years that you are also decreasing the quantity of seeds available for natural reproduction and for food to native species that utilize them. Also, that any one population might have been decimated for whatever reason, therefore find and mark more sites than you might think you will need.

Carry many paper and plastic (ziplock) bags and indelible writing implements when you set out on a seed collecting trip; dry days are preferable, so that you don’t have to worry about wet seedheads and additional mold problems.
Refer to ethical guidelines (GOERT ethical guidelines link here) on the amount of propagules that you should collect from species, populations and locations.
Be absolutely sure of your identifications.
Put the plant name, date, location and any other relevant information (such as recent weather conditions -dry year, wet year-, a note to try collecting two weeks earlier, later, colour, plant vigour, flavour, etc.) onto each seed packet.
When collecting, it is fine to allow some seeds to drift through your fingers onto the ground where they might eventually contribute to the gene pool.
Step lightly through these ecosystems; disturbances, especially in sensitive rocky bluffs, can facilitate the spread of invasive species.

Use paper bags when collecting dry seeds, to reduce the possibility of mold. Check to ensure that no seed eating creatures are accidentally collected with your seeds, it is very disappointing to open your containers and find only dead insects.

Soft-bodied seeds, such as berries, are better collected in plastic bags or storage containers, paper bags are too likely to become soggy and develop holes.
If you are collecting for food production, taste the berries, some have much better flavour than others of the same species and can be collected preferentially (although you will get truer (flavour/flowering/etc.) results from vegetative propagation).

Usually the largest, fattest, firmest seeds are best to use, soft-berried seeds will have lost their firmness and become soft, but not decayed. If you open the seedcoat, seed embryos should fill the embryo cavity.

Depending upon your resources, patience, abilities and amount of seed, you may clean seeds yourself or send them to a seed cleaning business (e.g. Yellow Point Propagation).
When collecting seeds from some plants species, it can be easy to clean them to a large degree as you harvest. Camas (Camassia sp), Fawn Lily (Erythronium sp) and Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria affinis) seeds are easily released from their dry shells into a paper bag. Grass seeds on the other hand, require more effort to release them from their packaging.

Directions For Cleaning Dry Seeds by Heather Koni-Pass
From Jan 2007 NPSG News:

FLUFFY SEED HEADS: (e.g.) Holodiscus discolour, Spirea douglasii.
You will need: sturdy gardening gloves, sieve of a size to allow seeds to pass through, ice cream bucket, newspaper, small plastic bags, labels.
With gloves on, take small handfuls of seedheads and rub between your hands over a newspaper to separate seeds and chaf. Then put this into sieve and sift. Save and label seeds, discard chaf.

CAPSULES & PODS: (e.g.) Penstemon, Rhododendron & Lathyrus
You will need: sturdy gardening gloves, rolling pin, large screen with mesh of size to let seeds pass through, newspaper, small plastic bags, labels.
With gloves on, put a handful of capsules or pods on screen on newspaper. GENTLY crush capsules/pods with rolling pin. Shake seeds thru screen. Save and label seeds. Discard chaf.
*With many pods which curl open when dry, it is just as easy to flick the seeds out with your fingers.

CONES: (e.g.) Alnus, Abies, Picea
You will need: face mask, paper grocery bag, sieve of size large enough to allow seeds to pass through.
When cleaning Alnus cones, wear a face mask as they can be allergenic.
Put cones in paper bag and shake vigorously. Pour bag contents into sieve and sift seeds thru. Save and label seeds. Dry on blank newsprint.

WINGED SEEDS: (e.g.) Acer
You will need: sturdy gloves, newspaper.
Wearing gloves, take small handfuls of maple keys and rub vigorously between your hands over newspaper. Winnow to separate seeds and chaf.

WINNOWING: (e.g.) Poa family
Sometimes, when separating chunkier seeds from chaf, better results are obtained by winnowing the seeds and chaf. It is easiest to work at a large table.
You will need: broom, dust pan, large plastic sheet to cover table, newspaper to cover plastic, fan, 2 deep buckets of same height, ice cream bucket.
Cover table with plastic. Cover plastic with newspaper. Place one deep bucket at end of table, upside down. Stand fan on this bucket with head in fixed position, facing down the length of the table. Turn fan on to low speed. Hold your hand in front of the fan so you can judge where the airflow is not too strong. Position the other deep bucket, right-side up, at this point in front of the fan.
Put the seeds and chaf in the ice-cream bucket. This will be trial and error. Holding the ice-cream bucket above the deep bucket, slowly pour a little of the contents into the deep bucket. If positioning is correct, the heavier seeds will fall into the deep bucket and the chaf will blow onto the table. If the air current is too strong and everything blows onto the table, simple scoop up the mixture, move the deep bucket a little further away from the fan and try again. With some experience, it becomes easy to judge the distance from the fan.

NUTS: (e.g.) Quercus & Corylus
You will need: seeds, bucketful of water, two screens of same size with two pieces of black landscape cloth to match screens, weights or clamps to hold screens together…and later, 1 gal. pots full of leafy compost.
Put all seeds in bucket of water and soak for a while (overnight is good). Seeds that sink are viable. Throw the floaters away where critters can eat them. This will also drown any worms in the seeds. Put a layer of landscape cloth on a screen. Spread seeds on this. Lay second layer of cloth over seeds. Put second screen on top. Weigh or clamp all together so seeds don't become critter snacks. Put this package on table in greenhouse or in shady spot outdoors. Water 3-4 times daily. As seeds sprout, transfer to pots of soil, ensuring that soil is gently tamped down while not damaging the sprout. Put one seed per pot. Water pot to ensure good contact between soil and seed. Continue to water regularly. Seedlings will remain in this pot until sold or ready to plant out carefully, taking care to not damage the root.
If you have only a handful of seeds, sprouting can be done in a canning jar with screen on top, as if sprouting seeds. The cupboard under the kitchen sink is a good, dark, warm spot.

Directions For Cleaning Soft-Berried Seeds by Heather Koni-Pass
From May 2006 NPSG News:

Waterproof apron, water source at work table, several buckets, food processor, duct tape, large sieve, clean stir stick, several clean-up rags, fine-meshed screens, clean newspaper, fan, small plastic flower pots

• Put one or two layers of duct tape on blades of food processor; one for small seeds (Rubus-raspberries) and two for larger seeds (Oemlaria-Indian plum).
• Put a small amount of berries in the food processor, fill with cool water.
• Holding hand over spout, pulse several times until a slurry forms.
• Fill a bucket ½ full of cool water. Pour slurry into bucket of water and swirl around. Unviable seeds and berry mush will float to the surface. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the bucket. Set sieve over another bucket.
• Slowly pour swirling water through sieve, stopping before the clean seeds are poured out of the first bucket. If cleaning fine seeds, line a screen with clean newspaper. Omit newspaper for large seeds. Retrieve clean seeds from first bucket and spear on screen.
• Examine stuff in sieve. If you feel there are enough seeds remaining in slurry dregs, repeat processing.
• Repeat this process until all fruits are seeded.

When you have completed the screening process put the screens of cleaned seeds in a well-ventilated space to dry. Stand a flower pot under each corner to ensure good ventilation. Cover with a second screen so they don’t become mouse treats! Stir gently several times a day while drying. Running a fan in this area will help the drying process.
If seeds stick together while drying, simply rub through your hands occasionally to separate. Plant out or store in fridge/freezer.

Some native plant with soft-berried seeds/husks:
Amelanchier alnifolia-saskatoon; Arctostaphylos uva-ursi-kinnikinnick; Cornus canadensis-bunchberry; Cornus stolonifera, red-osier dogwood; Crataegus douglasii-black hawthorn; Elaeagnus cummutata-wolf willow; Gaultheria shallon-salal; Juniperus communis-common juniper; Lonicera spp-honeysuckles; Mahonia spp- Oregon grapes; Oemleria cerasiformis-Indian plum; Rhamnus purshiana-cascara; Ribes spp- currants; Rosa spp-roses; Rubus spp-raspberries; Sambucus spp-elderberries; Sorbus spp-mountain ash family; Symphoricarpos spp-snowberries; Vaccinium spp-huckleberries

Seed Storage

Check the GOERT (and other) propagation guidelines (propagation guidelines link) for information on storage times. Some species will keep for decades and others for only months or a few years, with decreasing germination success as time goes by.
Generally speaking, seeds should be dried to 5-8% relative humidity (RH) and then stored at 5ºC to retain optimum seed quality. Seed quality will be affected when moisture content falls below 5% RH (vigour declines) or above 8% RH (seed deterioration); above 12% RH and fungi can grow. Refrigerators are the right temperature for seed storage but have approximately 40% RH. To ensure proper drying, seal the seeds in a jar (wide mouth canning jars work well) with a desiccant such as silica gel (can be purchased at scientific supply stores), the amount of silica gel should equal the weight of the seeds. Some silica gel comes as a coloured product, a pink or red colour means the product is still working, when it turns blue, it has ceased to be useful; it can be reinvigorated by heating to 110-180ºC. It’s helpful to be able to see if your seeds are still being stored at the right RH.
When you cannot find silica gel, powdered milk, tied in a small breathable fabric such as cheesecloth, is a satisfactory substitute. Small seeds will dry sufficiently overnight while larger seeds might take several days. Now the seeds can be stored, in their sealed jars, in the fridge.
If you open dried seed packets to sow and leave them unsealed for several hours, they will increase their moisture content rapidly, you will need to dry them again to ensure continued vigour and viability.

Some seeds have short life spans and can only be stored a short while. Garry oak acorns should be planted almost immediately and kept cool and moist until planting, they won’t tolerate being dried out. They also benefit by being soaked for a number of hours, discarding any that float, or which have insect damage, these have either not developed fully or are infested with pests and will not germinate. Weevils, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, will vacate soaking acorns and drown, these acorns should also be eliminated.

Seed Germination

In order to propagate plants at our convenience, it can be necessary to artificially induce the germination process.

Some seeds germinate with great ease, Roemer’s fescue (Festuca roemeri) is only too willing to germinate. Carefully measure one to two seeds into each planting cavity (styro block size 144), lightly sift potting soil mix on top, water, place in a warm, bright location and germination will occur rapidly.

Some seeds, including many tree and shrub species, have hard seedcoats that have evolved for protection and they are naturally disinclined to germinate unless they have been subjected to extensive modification. In their natural environment, they might sit for one, two, or more seasons until their seedcoats have deteriorated and thinned enough to allow moisture and air to begin the germination process. Manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana) and Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are two such species that can be forced into an earlier germination by various means. Mechanically, the seeds can be gently rubbed with sandpaper or a nailfile, nicked with a sharp implement or cracked with a hammer; chemically, they can be immersed in a sulfuric acid bath for various lengths of time (check propagation techniques), vinegar can be used more safely but with less successful results; or they can be covered with boiling water and let sit until the water has cooled. Whichever method is used, it is important to open the seedcoat without harming the embryonic plant. Scarified seeds do not store as well.

Many seeds need stratification, which involves manipulating the seeds’ environment; providing moisture, cold and heat as if it has undergone seasonal changes. Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) will germinate after a cool moist stratification period: place in a plastic bag with slightly moistened peat moss, refrigerate for 3 months, plant. Alternately, plant the seeds directly into their container and leave outdoors for the winter. Snowberry seeds (Symphiocarpos albus) are more particular, they first require a warm, moist 60 day period of stratification, followed by 180 days of cool, moist storage before planting. Check the seeds regularly as they stratify to monitor for signs of mold or dryness.

Some seeds need both scarification and stratification to germinate, check propagation guidelines for individual species’ requirements.

Whether for large scale production or your own satisfaction, proper seed collection, storage and germination technique is an important consideration in any project. Enjoy the process!
January 2010