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Oemleria cerasiformis “Indian Plum” Rosaceae

Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WA
May 9, 2016
Robert Niese

Oemleria is a PNW endemic and is one of the first plants to leaf-out and bloom in spring. Later in the summer Oemleria will begin to bear ripe fruits which are purple with a large pit, giving them the name Indian Plums. Opinions vary on the palatability of these fruits. Some find them to be among the best in the PNW, while others find them too bitter. Generally, their astringency can be reduced through cooking and, as such, Oemleria fruits tend to be most commonly prepared in jams and pie fillings. Also, their bark is thought to be a mild aphrodisiac. Someone should try chewing on a few twigs and report back to us all.

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Taraxacum officinale “Common Dandelion” Asteraceae (Compositae)

Missoula, MT
May 2, 2016
Robert Niese

Generic, but beautiful nonetheless. Each of those tiny wind dancers is actually a fruit called an achene. Each achene arose from an individual flower of which there are hundreds in a single dandelion head (actually there are only 50-200 flowers per head, but “hundreds” sounds better) . This is where the family got its old name, “Compositae.” Each of their composite “flowers” are made up of loads of tiny individual flowers. So next time your lover asks for flowers, pick them a couple dandelions and astound them with an offering of many hundreds of flowers instead of a measly dozen roses.

Acer glabrum “Rocky Mountain Maple” Aceraceae

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, MT
October 9, 2015
Robert Niese

Montana is home to two species of maple, but this is our only native. The Rocky Mountain Maple can be found in moist, open forests, avalanche slopes, and riparian areas throughout the Pacific Northwest, but is most common east of the Cascades. In the west, A. glabrum could be confused with A. circinatum, the Vine Maple, which tends to be much more common. However, simple differences in their leaf shape, fruit color, and fruit shape make the distinction quite straightforward. Like all maples, these plants have neat, aerially dispersed seeds called samaras that spin like a helicopter blade as they fall to the ground. During World War II these seeds inspired parachute-less cargo containers that could be dropped from planes to provide emergency supplies or mail to inaccessible locations.

Geum macrophyllum “Large-leaf Avens” Rosaceae

Weir Hot Springs, Clearwater National Forest, ID
June 8, 2015
Robert Niese

This little forest flower is common throughout moist bottomlands and subalpine meadows here in the PNW. It can be easily distinguished from other yellow-flowered Avens by its massive leaves and reflexed sepals (they’re not visible behind the petals here). Avens characteristically produce adorable heads of achenes that look like tiny sea urchins. In its cousin, Old Man’s Whiskers (Geum triflorum), these achenes have a long feathery tip and look like wisps of smoke.

Symphoricarpos albus

Symphoricarpos albus “Snowberry” Caprifoliaceae

Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
September 12, 2015
Robert Niese

Snowberry is one of our most abundant understory plants here in the eastern PNW. It’s so abundant that I often completely forget about it, and, in spite of cataloging PNW plants and animals for over six years, I have yet to get a photograph of this plant at all its phenological stages. Well, here’s Snowberry in fruit – its most recognizable life stage. These berries are not edible to humans, but are important food sources for winter birds such as grouse and ptarmigans.

Dipsacus fullonum, National Bison Range

Dipsacus fullonum “Fuller’s Teasel” Dipsacaceae with frost

National Bison Range, MT
October 26, 2013
Robert Niese

Here’s a family that you don’t see too often in the Pacific Northwest! Sometimes grouped with the Caprifoliaceae, Dipsacaceae has members that are native to the Old World only. Here in western North America, we get two invasive species – the Teasel and the Bluebutton (Knautia arvensis). In spite of being quite abundant in some areas (like the low basins of the north-eastern side of the Bison Range), I’ve never had the opportunity to examine these plants while they’re in flower. I’ve always just assumed they were some kind of Asteraceae! When it comes to natural history, there’s always more to learn!

Physocarpus malvaceus “Mallow Ninebark” Rosaceae

Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
September 12, 2015
Robert Niese

Ninebark is one of those plants I only begin noticing in the fall when their leaves turn scarlet. In the summer they briefly bloom small white flowers, but their petals quickly drop, leaving behind a green-red calyx that is easy to overlook. Along with the fact that these rosaceous plants don’t produce edible fruits (dry follicles, as you can see here), Physocarpus is a very underappreciated member of our dry Ponderosa Pine forests. But it plays a critical role in these fire-prone ecosystems and is a hardy pioneer species following all kinds of disturbances.

Ribes cereum “Wax Currant” Grossulariaceae

Missoula, MT
July 19, 2015
Robert Niese

Apparently the berries of the Wax Currant are not very palatable. In fact, its young leaves and flowers are a much more prized trailside treat than its fruits! These little berries will retain their characteristically long, shriveled flowers to maturity when they start to turn red. Perhaps I’ll collect some for a wildberry jam later this summer.

Lonicera involucrata “Twinberry” Caprifoliaceae

Beachside State Park, OR
June 11, 2015
Robert Niese

Twinberry is a common coastal shrub in the PNW. It tends to produce flowers in pairs that are regularly defended by Rufous Hummingbirds. These flowers usually develop into a pair of inedible berries, but in this sad bush, most of the berries had lost their twins. Many coastal native peoples held taboos against eating these berries. Some said that they were the food of monsters and the dead. Others believed that you would be unable to speak after consuming them. Instead the berries were often used as a hair dye and to prevent graying.

Berberis aquifolium “Tall Oregon Grape” Berberidaceae

Tacoma, WA
May 18, 2013
Robert Niese

The roots of these plants are often used to treat Psoriasis and can be found in topical creams such as Relieva. The stems of most members of this family contain a yellow compound called berberine which is both a strong antimicrobial and an excellent dye. Its berries are sometimes used to make barberry wine and can also produce a pleasant purple dye. Eaten alone however, the fruits of most Berberis are bitter and unpalatable.