Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rattlesnakes, Devils, and Rams, Oh My!

The seniors are finishing up their Capstone Projects and getting ready for the Capstone Fair on June 1. I look forward to seeing the results of their efforts and the answers to their Essential Questions. I hope they've managed to meet their goals and solve any problems they encountered along the way. Maybe they've also found a few rattlesnakes in the process. 

Last weekend, while working on my own on-going project of finding and photographing native orchids, I walked into a deep, dark bog where I met the Devil and a Serpent...

I visited the Bemidji area and stopped in at the Pennington Bog SNA. There weren't any mosquitoes, so that made it a very pleasant experience. Armed with my GPS app and backup battery, I felt I could safely explore a bit more of the bog than I usually do, and while I still haven't seen more than a fraction of its 108 acres, I did go just a bit farther into those woods, which are so "lovely, dark and deep" (a lot of us have Robert Frost on the brain these days). 
You can see the path, right? It's not exactly a yellow-brick road...

In doing so, I discovered that the best way to make progress through the thick vegetation is not to step on the big raised mounds of sphagnum moss, but rather to follow the many  narrow deer paths that meander through the area. Although those paths are wet, they're not as soft and squishy as I thought they might be. The deer have discovered where the stable ground is... 
Yep, I know I'm on the right path.

Following the little trails of breadcrumbs, I mean, deer pellets, I was able to move more easily through the tangle of vegetation, exploring all the sights as I went. 

Along the way, I encountered an orchid I've never seen before, the Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain. It wasn't blooming yet, but I hope I can get back again to see it when it is--if it blooms at all, that is. This orchid plant can grow for several years before it blooms. I forgot to mark its location with my GPS app, but someone else had already marked it by tying a red bandana in a tree branch above the plant (it is not legal to mark plants, but I have seen other similarly marked plants in the bog). The Rattlesnake Plantain has really beautiful evergeen foliage. In my quest to take photos of Lady Slippers, I keep coming across other native orchids that I didn't intend to search for--that's one of the great, unexpected benefits of this project
Rattlesnake Plantain--I think it gets its name from the snakeskin-like pattern of the leaves...

Looks like a Stemless Slipper.
I saw lots of Lady Slippers sprouting up in the bog, among them what I hope is a Stemless Slipper. Another goal of mine is  to see one of these outside of a State Park. I can see them at Lake Bemidji State Park, on their Bog-Walk Trail, but I'd like to find some in a more truly wild location.

Mostly, though, what I take pictures of in the Pennington Bog are the carnivorous Pitcher Plants. They are big, plentiful, and very beautiful. I have to work hard not to step on them because they're everywhere.
I love the colors!
Note the bug trapped inside this carnivorous plant.
They grow in a circular pattern.
From the Pennington Bog, I went on to Lake Bemidji State Park, to check on the progress of the Stemless Slippers growing there. I was pleased to see lots of buds. Those slippers will probably start blooming this weekend. 
Budding Stemless Slipper in the State Park.
Finally, late in the afternoon, I was able to meet one of my long-term goals. I've been searching, unsuccessfully, for the Ram's Head Lady Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum) for a while now, looking for traces of the plant even in the off-seasson. I've been combing through references to them on the internet, hoping to find specific location data, but the information I've found could only get me within a few miles of some likely spots. 

It finally occurred to me to ask a Duluth botanist, Josh Horky, for more info. Sometimes, to meet your goal, you have to ask for help. He generously gave me a great tip. Josh "dropped a pin" on a Google Map for me, and I used the Google Maps app to direct me to the spot. It wasn't the large colony I had been looking for earlier--I still haven't located that exact spot--but it was a large enough group for me to get a good sense of what this threatened species looks like. 

The Ram's Head is a very tiny Lady Slipper. 
I didn't see them immediately, because they are so very small. You can read a description that tells you the flower is only about an inch in size, but when you actually see how miniscule they are, you get a better sense of their scale. Most of the flowers were the size of my fingernail. I finally saw a group of about thirty plants, and although it was very breezy and the Ram's Head's were not quite fully open, I was able to photograph some of them.
Ram's Head plant, with bud just starting to open. You can tell from this photo how hard
it would be to see these flowers from standing-height.
I had to use my close-up lens to get most of these shots. It was a challenge to get the iPhone to focus on such a tiny flower. Most of the photos I took were no good, and I had to delete them. Taking lots of bad shots is necessary, if you're ever going to take any good ones.

I was pretty excited to see these Slippers. I'd been telling myself all day that I should expect to be disappointed again. Earlier this year, I was wondering if I'd ever be able to find them, having failed several times over the last couple years to locate even one. 
The Ram's Head, just beginning to open up. Look at all the hairs on its chin!
This colony was situated in a really interesting place on the edge of a small lake; it was dark and wet, with lots of moss and some big, old cedar trees--very boggy. If you were just driving by, you'd never know that a colony of rare orchids grew there...

Ram's Head with dorsal sepal just beginning to rise.
There were lots of other Slippers, Yellows and Showys, sprouting up in the same area, and I saw lots of seedpods from last year's Slipper crop. Clearly, this is a really great little spot for Lady Slippers. I can't wait to get back to it and take more photos when the Ram's Heads are fully open. (This slipper is supposed to resemble a ram's head, but I'm not quite seeing the resemblance yet...maybe when it's open, I'll see it.)
Showy Slipper seedpods, almost four feet off the ground!
While I was looking for the Ram's Heads, I also came across a fairly large patch of what might be Devil's Urn fungus, a mushroom I've only ever seen once before, in Jay Cooke, and that was at a later stage in its development. They were growing around, and partially up, the base of a big cedar tree. I want to take more photos of these unusual mushrooms, too. 
Devil's Urn?
I find a lot of fungi while searching for Lady Slippers and other wildflowers. I've come to appreciate their beauty, and in the autumn, when all the flowers are gone, taking photos of mushrooms consoles me for the loss of the flowers.

I didn't see a single tick the whole day, but then on Monday, I got into my car and immediately found a tick. All throughout Lady Slipper season, now, I'll be wondering how many ticks are lying in wait for me in my car. 

But that's part of the deal. If I want to get photos of these plants, I have to put up with the bugs. As I've said before, when you're doing what you really love, you don't mind dealing with delays, false leads, or a few bugs. In the end, it's all worth it, especially when you meet the sweetest Rattlesnake and the cutest little Devils in the process.
Ram's Head bud just poking out from the leaves.

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