Category Archives: Wild flowers of Manitoba

Manitoba’s Cactuses

 

 

In June 2016 I went on one of my most spectacular botany trips ever. That is saying a lot since I have on some outstanding trips. This was truly one of the best.

Normally I am a bog guy. I love bogs. I love the orchids and other plants that inhabit our wetlands. Most of my flower hunting has been in these wetlands.  Today I felt a bit like a faithless lover because I wandered a near desert in search of cacti. I have come to love cacti as much as orchids. Both are pretty close to divine.

 

I love deserts. I just never thought I would experience one in Manitoba. Actually, I did not experience one that day. It is not really a desert but it is as close as we get in Manitoba. Spruce Woods gets about twice the amount that is the limit for what is considered a desert. The annual moisture received there is 300-500 millimetres per year-nearly twice the amount received in a true desert region. This rainfall enables plants to colonize the sand dunes, hiding most of the sand. In fact as I walked along the trail I was struck by the great variety of vegetation. For a plant guy like me that was fantastic.

 

Of the original 6,500 square kilometres of delta sand, only four square kilometres remain open today. The balance is now covered with vegetation that is gradually covering the sands. Most of the sands are now covered with a rich variety of plants and wildlife. The Spirit Sands had their origin more than 15,000 years ago when the ancestral Assiniboine River, was much larger than it is today and it created a huge delta as it carried glacial meltwaters into ancient Lake Agassiz.

The origins of the Spruce Woods require one to consider the massive continental ice sheets that covered Manitoba and much of the northern part of North America.  About 20,000 years ago, all of Manitoba was covered by an enormous ice sheet that in many places was up to 2 km. deep.  There was an awful lot of water locked up in that  ice.

When that fantastic ice sheet started to melt, a wide melt stream flowed into the recently created Lake Agassiz.  It was the largest lake the world has ever seen! As the water flowed in it dropped silt, sand, and gravel into many parts of Manitoba including a pathway that was centred roughly on what is now the Assinboine River.  This created a huge river valley.

The sand deposits thus created were vast and deep. In places they were up to 200 feet deep and covered approximately 6,500 square km. These deposits spread out in a fan shape that reached as far as Portage la Prairie. Winds created heaps of sand that we call dunes. Large dunes were built up in this area. Those dunes are still active today.

When the great continental ice sheets finally melted away, about 12,000 years ago, the Assinboine River was a mighty river, about 1.5 km wide. The modern descendant is a puny shadow of that.  The river drained into huge Lake Agassiz just south of present day Brandon Manitoba. As the glacier continued to retreat northwards Lake Agassiz drained south—opposite of today. The massive ice sheets blocked northward flow. This south flow of the river exposed massive sand from the river delta.

 

To the aboriginal people the Spirit Sands were a spiritual place close to the Great Spirit or Kiche Manitou. The present name—Spirit Sands acknowledges the religious importance of the dunes to indigenous people.

Today Spirit Sands is a fragile sand dune about 4 km2.  The rest of what is left is covered with vegetation. The dunes are moved along the prevailing northwesterly winds and like so many dunes, cover anything that stands in their way.

 

Cactuses or cacti  are magnificent. I have spent  a few winters now in Arizona looking at cacti and have come to love them nearly as much as orchids, as heretical as that might sound.  Our Manitoba cacti are small low plants but the flowers are extraordinary and can hold their heads up high to any Arizona cacti.  And they love sandy conditions.

Many people are surprised to learn that cacti can be found in Canada. After all, are cacti not a plant of the southwestern deserts? Yes and no. Certainly they can be found in the southwest of the US and are in fact famous for that. Yet they can survive in the north as well.

There are actually 4 species of cacti native to Canada. These are Escobaria vivipara, Opuntia fragilis, O. polyacanthaand O. humifusa. None of these species are found farther north than their locations in Canada.

There is another species of cactus in Manitoba that I have not seen yet. That is prickly pear and it can be found from BC to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. There are as well a few sites in northwestern Ontario. I have seen this cactus in Manitoba but not when it was in bloom. A nature group of which I am a part, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. went to see it but I had to miss that field trip. Sometimes life sucks.  Next year for sure!

What is an Orchid?

 

I am often asked what is an orchid? The fact is that orchids vary tremendously.  Some are little green jobs like this:

 

On seeing this tiny little flower, entirely green, who would ever think it is an orchid? But it is!  It is called Green adders-mouth orchid (Malaxis unifolia). There are a number of orchids that are so plain we call them “little green jobs” as birders sometimes refer to plain birds as “little brown jobs.”

The other day I made a trip through my favorite place in Manitoba for orchids—the Brokenhead Wetlands Ecological Reserve. I plan on blogging about it. That day we found some tiny little green jobs, but we also found the spectacular Dragon’s-mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa).

 

What do these two orchids have in common? Well you need a magnifying glass (or loupe) to tell.

An orchid is a flower that has 3 sepals (part of the outside ring of modified leaves) and 3 petals (part of inside ring of modified leaves). As well 1 of the petals is usually modified to form a lip or labellum. That lip is famous on some orchids like the Lady’s-slippers.

 

This is the Showy Lady’s-slipper with lip that here looks like a pouch or lady’s slipper.

The lip usually stands out as looking like a landing pad for insect pollinators.  This is obvious on the Dragon’s mouth, on the Green adders-mouth not so much.

This is not an orchid! It is the famous wood lily and clearly shows the separate sexual parts –stamens and stigma.

Unlike most flowers that have separate sexual parts, like the above wood lily, in orchids  stamens in the case of male organs and stigma in the case of female organs  are are fused together into a column that makes it all but impossible to tell those organs apart. As well all orchids have only one seed leaf.

There are about 25,000 species of orchids world-wide. In many we have 37 species from the far south to the far north of Manitoba.

 

Coral-roots

 

These are not Manitoba’s most beautiful orchids. But they are among the most interesting.

Manitoba has 37 different species of orchids. They vary greatly from the small and mundane to the large and glorious.  Perhaps none though are stranger than those within the genus Corallorhiza(Coral-roots). We have only 3 of the genus in Manitoba. The name is derived from the Greek word korallionwhich means “coral” and rhizawhich means root.  This refers to the fact that these orchids spend most of their life underground away from the light. They live among the roots of trees and other plants in the forest. The ones in Manitoba rarely live in wetlands, though one comes pretty close.

Coral-roots are mycoheterotrophs meaning that they are not autotrophs, or primary producers, but rather heterotrophs, or secondary producers who cannot produce their own food like the green plants, but rather derive energy from consuming plant and animal tissue. Specifically, they derive their nutrition from nearby mycorrhizal fungiunder the ground who in turn get the nutrition from nearby roots of trees. Their underground life-style does not allow them to produce their own food from sunlight like green plants. Instead they take advantage of a beneficial mutualistic relationship with the neighbouring trees and the mycorrhizal fungi in the ground between them and on them. Since the orchids host the same mycorrhizal fungus that are found in the roots of the adjacent trees the coral-roots are able to use the fungi as a conduit to share the sugars produced by the trees. Trees have green leaves so they are able to produce food, unlike the coral-roots that are unable to produce food because they lack the green chlorophyll.

This is a colony of spotted-coral orchids.

The spotted coral-roots are my favourite. Notice how they  entirely lack green. That is why they are unable to produce food.

Notice how the size of these are reflected by the size of the mosquitos. They are about the same size

The striped coral-root orchids are very distinctive with their prominent dark red stripes.

 

These are coral-roots but they have some green and thus are able to produce some food and are likely not entirely dependent on the associated mycorrhizal fungus under the ground for nutrition.

All I can say for sure is that orchids are fascinating.

The Wild Orchid of Buffalo Point

 

When I was starting out in the world of wild orchids I had heard about an orchid that could be found only in one place in Manitoba—Buffalo Point.  And I had a cottage there. What luck!  But it took me a few years to find it. I even enlisted the help of my sons. I had to bribe them of course. I promised them a magnificent reward of $5 to the son who found them. But all to no avail. They never found them. Neither did I. At least I never found them until I got help. Friends gave me instructions on where they had been found. What a treat when I finally found them.

This year after my second trip to the Tall Grass Prairie When we got back to Buffalo Point I could not wait to see the Small Purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes). Conditions were absolutely ideal for photography. There was no harsh sun, no wind, and not bugs! And I was ready with my new tripod quick release that did not creep! Most of the flowers were in very good condition. One  even had a spider on it waiting for prey. I had not even noticed it at first.

Of special note and excitement one specimen was white and purple! Imagine that a purple-fringed orchid that is mainly white. wonders never cease in the world of wild flowers.  I just kept shooting images. I think I got my very best images of this orchid ever! I was a happy guy.

Walking group walks Tall Grass Prairie

 

Chris and I drove to Tall Grass Prairie to meet our senior’s walking group. We would be walking in “my territory” and I could not miss this. On the way in we saw  a gray wolf standing majestically right beside the road. This was a very exciting find.

We met the group at the Loewen interpretive Center then drove out to the Agassiz Trail where we went for a walk and I acted as the interpreter since I knew the place better than most or all of our walkers. We saw many wild flowers including the following: Western Wood Lily, Bergamot, Harebell, Black-eyed Susan, Western prairie fringed orchid in a spent condition, Common milkweed, Swamp milkweed, Camas, Thistle, Meadow Blazing Star, Purple Prairie Clover, and Culver’s root(at the interpretive Centre wild flower garden).

 

Culver’s-root (Veronicastrum virginicum)is a a provincially threatened plant found in Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and in 36 American states. It has been declared “a threatened speices under the Endangered Species Act of Manitoba.This plant reaches its northwestern limit in southern Manitoba near the Minnesota border. According to the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre considers Culver’s-root to be very rare in Manitoba (S1). In Manitoba, much of Culver’s-root habitat has been lost or fragmented by conversion to agriculture. Current threats include road allowance maintenance such as mowing and herbicide spraying, grazing by deer and picking or digging. Culver’s-root was listed as threatened in 2001 by regulation under Manitoba’s Endangered Species Act. To survive its habitat much be protected. That means farmers must to some extent back off. I think this would be well worth it.

I was particularly pleased to find a Fritillary butterfly enjoying the nectar from a Meadow Blazing star while I enjoyed the beauty of the two together.

 

 

More missed opportunities

Blue Flag Iris–always beautiful.

Wild Rose

 

 

Cut-leaved anemone

 

 

Pincushion Cactus

 

The flowers I most hated not to see were Manitoba’s cactus.  Many people don’t realize we have cactuses in Manitoba and in my opinion they are every bit as beautiful as those in Arizona, just smaller and less common. They are of course very rare here. In fact one has to ask, “Why here?”

Manitoba’s cactuses are  amazingly resilient plants. Obviously built of sturdy stuff. They must be to survive here. Just like the people.

 

 

 

Fortunately it has not sunk in yet how many others I missed. I guess it is time to move on.

Missed Opportunities

 

Showy Ladies’-slipper (Platanthera reginae)

I paid a heavy price for my recent trip to Iceland. I was gone from Manitoba for the last 2 weeks of June, probably  the best time for Manitoba wild flowers. As a result I missed some wonderful flowers so I will show some shots from my archives.

Grass Pink Orchid  (Calopogon tuberosus)

 

 

Rose Pogonia (Polonia ophioglossoides)

These are some of my favourite Manitoba Orchids. What a pity.

Woodridge Bog

 

After spending a couple of hours here it was time to leave. Actually I did not give it enough time, but today, as I said, I could not mosey along as I like to do. I drove out to the Woodridge Bog. Again conditions were windy and sunny–far from ideal. But you gotta dance with the girl you brung.

 

I was soon rewarded with one of my favorite flowers–Low Prairie Rose. That is one of my favourite Manitoba wild flowers. I love that flower!  It was very dry so I sprinkled a little water on some of the blossoms. I find a little rain (either natural or store bought) helps bring out the colours of this gentle gem of a flower. I do not consider that cheating. Do you?

Other flowers I saw here included Spreading Dogbane, Harebell, Showy Lady’s-slippers and Small round-leaved orchid but sadly past their prime.

Small round-leaved orchid

 

Showy Lady’s-slipper

The Showy Lady’s-slipper is  perhaps one of Manitoba’s most spectacular orchids but most of them were mostly spent. I found a few worth photographing.

Showy Lady’s-slipper

This is the price I paid for going to Iceland. It was a high price. I did find some gorgeous clumps and made a mental note to return next year, but you know mental notes are worth the paper they are not written on. I did later find one nice showy as a result of diligence and persistence. Righteous living was rewarded. For once!

2 Incredibly rare species in 1 Day

After our return from Iceland, and after realizing I had missed 2 of the best wild flower weeks of the year I was very anxious to get out and see some flowers.  I was not disappointed. In fact it was one of my most amazing natural history jaunts ever! In one day, I saw 2 of Canada’s most rare species—one a flower and one a butterfly!

First I drove to the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, one of my favorite places. I immediately walked towards the site where the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid (Platanthera praeclara) appear every summer. I was not disappointed.  This is the best place in the world to see this orchid. These orchids used to be fairly common on the prairies but have disappeared with the disappearance of their habitat. I had a little more trouble than normal finding the flowers. That was a bit disconcerting. Where were they I wondered? I soon realized that there were many flowering plants, but all of them without exception were small and short. No huge plants jutted out to the sky as they typically do.  I inferred that this was a result of very dry conditions this spring and summer. The prairie was dry and I concluded the flowers were keeping a low profile in order to conserve their energy and water. I just had to look a little harder to find them, but they were there.

 

 

I quickly set about trying to photograph them. Conditions were tricky. The sun was harsh creating deep shadows. Added to that problem, it was very windy. Trying to photograph these flowers was indeed challenging. I think I did a reasonable job under these difficult circumstances.

When I was done I also noticed a young lady in the field. I had been too absorbed to notice her.  Too absorbed in the flowers to notice a young woman. Imagine that. So I sauntered over (OK I meandered over) to talk to her. What was she looking for? I presumed the Western Prairie fringed too, but I was wrong. She was looking for a butterfly. A very rare butterfly.

She explained that she was employed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and she was doing a survey of a very rare butterfly called Poweshiek Skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek) (Parker, 1870).  She informed me that this butterfly could be found in only 1 place in Canada and this was it. Just like the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid that is found no where else in Canada. What a double header! I was very fortunate.

Were it not for the woman who worked with the Nature Conservancy there is no doubt I would not have found this butterfly. I had never heard of it before. I actually got only a fleeting look at it as it flew past a larger Fritillary butterfly. She said the skipperling loved Brown-eyed Susans and there were many of these wild flowers here, as I knew.

This skipper is very dark brown, with an orange suffusion along the costa. Below, the hind wings are dark greyish, with white-lined veins. The wingspan is only 24 to 30 mm. According to The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998 its range is in just a few states west and south of the Great Lakes as well as south-eastern Manitoba—i.e. here. There is only one generation of this butterfly each year and they  have been found in Manitoba between June 23 and July 8. That is not a very large window of opportunity.

It was discovered here in July of 1985, at about the same time as the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid was discovered here. It is believed to becoming scarcer all the time. The problem of course is that its habitat is becoming scarcer. The woman was very pleased to see a specimen that was a pregnant female that appeared to be in very good shape. Hopefully it would produce offspring.

By another amazing coincidence later in the week I read an article on this butterfly that I have never heard of before, in the Winnipeg Free Press. The article reported that 6 more Poweshiek by the Assiniboine Park Conservatory this week. That sounds like a puny number, but scientists estimate there are only 100 of them left in North America! This may be the most rare species I have ever seen!

The Assiniboine Conservatory had bred the butterflies over the winter in captivity. Last summer the conservancy brought 2 wild female Poweshiek skipperlings  to the Assiniboine Park Zoo for 3 days to lay eggs before releasing the 2 will females back into the wild.

Once the eggs hatched, specialists monitored the caterpillars in a climate-controlled incubator over the winter.  In the lab they placed the skipperlings in a n incubator at a constant temperature of -4ºC to mimic conditions in the wild where normally they would spend the winter under the snow.

The program was very successful. “Every caterpillar survived the winter.”[1]I was extremely lucky to have met this scientist and seen this rare butterfly. What an amazing day on the prairie!

I did not get a good look at the butterfly. It was very small and whizzed by me and I had no chance to photograph it. What a pity.

Other flowers I saw included the following: Western Wood Lily, Creamy Peavine, Common Milkweed, Swamp milkweed, Brown-eyed Susan, Heal-All, andPurple Prairie Clover.I was in heaven, but my luck had only begun.

 

Western Wood Lily or Prairie Lily

 

 

Purple Prairie Clover

What a great way to return to Manitoba. I am blessed.

[1]Erik Pindera, “Endangered butterflies released into wild,” The Winnipeg Free Press, July 5, 2018 p. B3.

Discovery Day at Brokenhead Wetlands Interpretive Trail

 

 

I led the Steinbach Garden Club to the Brokenhead Wetlands Interpretive Trail today. We saw 10 different types of orchids in bloom, plus 1 that was spent showing just its seed capsule. The Brokenhead Wetlands is one of the premier sites for orchids and other wild flowers in Manitoba. It contains 28 of Manitoba’s 37 orchids.

The 37 orchids of Manitoba range from gorgeous large Showy Lady’s-slippers to Coral-roots that have no leaves and produce no chlorophyll and hence no food. Instead they depend on mycorrhizal partners for sustenance. Manitoba produces 3 Coral-roots. This is spotted Coral-root, my favourite.

The Ecological Reserve contains 23 of Manitoba’s rare and uncommon plants including 8 of Manitoba’s carnivorous plants. If you look carefully you will see 2 of Manitoba’s sundews on this photo. Sundew leaves are covered with hairs that secret a shiny substance to attract unwary insects and then aids in their digestion. This is one of those cases where the plant world turns the tables on the insects, which usually eat the plants. When the hapless insect has been digested all that is left is the dry exoskeleton. I saw one plant that was rolled up around its prey. Later it will unfurl again, leaving the remains to blow away in the wind.

 

Dragon’s Mouth orchid  (Arethusa bulbosa) was the highlight. It i certainly one of Manitoba’s most beautiful orchids. Last week I went there and was very happy to see Dragon’s Mouth  in glorious bloom. I thought the Garden club would not be able to see them this week. Thankfully, I was wrong. There were even more in bloom than last week and some, very cooperatively, were right beside the boardwalk.

 

It was difficult to photograph the tiny Small Round-leaved orchid as it was blowing in the wind. Fortunately I found one that was deep in the forest and hence somewhat protected from annoying wind.

 

The Showy Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae) just emerged. This truly is the Queen of orchids in Manitoba.

 

It was a great day in the bog.