When setting off into the woods, our friends S. and G. always wear bear-bells and mosquito veils. We didn't see any bears during our stay in the near-wilderness two weekends ago (though bears regularly ransack our friends' bird feeders) but we certainly attracted a lot of hungry mosquitoes! I did OK with a netting over my neck and ears, long sleeves and pants, and a liberal spray of musk oil on my hat, wrists, and ankles.
This area, northeast of Montreal, is part of the North Woods in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains. It's a mature mixed deciduous/coniferous forest containing paper birch, maples, aspens, oaks, mountain ash, pines, spruce, firs and junipers.
The understory is sparse except in clearings, where you find a lot of lichens, clubmosses, mosses, and some ferns. From the mix of species, you can tell that you're either getting up high or going north, and that the soil is quite acidic.
I've always been interested in primitive plants: lichens, mosses, clubmosses, ferns. Lichens are very cool, because they are actually aren't a plant at all, but a combination of an algae and a fungi living together to form what's known as a "composite organism." As one website stated, "Lichen are pioneers in places that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They grow on bare rock, sand, cleared soil, dead wood, bones, rusty metal, and bark. They're able to shut down metabolically for long periods of time when conditions are unfavorable, and can survive extremes of heat or cold and long periods of drought." In Iceland, for instance, lichens and mosses are the first species to colonize new lava fields.
Growing among these lichens, I found several species of wildflowers, new to me, that are in the Pyroloideae (below). And when looking them up, I learned that these are both mixotropic plants-- they gain their nutrition not only from photosynthesis, but also from a symbiotic relationship with fungi.
This is a Pyrola, though I'm not sure which of the thirty species it is.
This one is (I think) Chimaphilia umbellata. The name means "loves winter" (from the Greek: cheima 'winter' and philos 'lover'); both of these plants have leaves that stay green in the winter. Chimaphilias were used by the Native Americans as a treatment for rheumatism, and it was thought that chewing the leaves warded off tuberculosis. Pyrola americana, or American Wintergreen, is another related plant (also found in these woods); wintergreen oil contains salicylates (like aspirin) that act as painkillers but can be toxic at higher doses.
Like the lichens, these Chimaphilias seemed to be thriving here: under some trees on one side of the clearing, I found a huge patch of them.
Mosses also thrive here. These are primitive, non-flowering plants that grow close to the ground and reproduce by spores (borne on the tops of the reddish-orange stalks you can see here.)
Clubmosses, or Lycopodiums, are some of my favorite plants. Like moss, they reproduce with spores. They're related to the earliest plants that had a vascular system for carrying water and nutrients up into the plant from the soil - an obvious prerequisite for the evolution of plants that can grow tall and bear specialized tissues such as flowers. The northeastern clubmoss species are relatively rare; local populations have been damaged by the overuse of endangered clubmosses in Christmas decorations. Lycopodium powder -- the dried spores of common clubmoss - was used by the Victorians in theater to produce gunpowder effects, because it burns brightly and quickly but without a lot of heat.
I love being in woods like these, and to prowl around and discover some of the reasons why certain species exist there. It's a harsh environment: the soil is acidic, the rocks are close to the surface, the winter temperature is very cold. Still, nature evolves, and the result is a rich mixture of species that are adapted to survive.