Monthly Archives: November 2012

“Plant” of the day: feather boa kelp

Looking just like its name, feather boa kelp lies draped across the exposed rocks at low tide. This brown alga (Egregia menziesii) grows its “feathers” off of a long, straplike stalk that can be up to 15 feet long. Small air-filled floats are scattered among the feathers like bangles. The feathers are usually 2 to 4 inches long and can vary widely in shape; from flat (either broad or narrow) to cylindrical to threadlike.

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“Plant” of the day: rockweed

Lacy mounds of flat, greenish-brown leaves stand out in the cacophony of intertidal life. This is rockweed (Fucus gardneri), another brown alga that is widespread from Alaska to California. The mature tips  puff up and act as a float–and as the nursery where sperm and eggs develop before being released to find one another in the water. These tips are edible, and were called “Indian popcorn” by settler because local tribes liked to eat them dried. Other sources recommend eating them young (either fresh or blanched); but always in moderation.

Other names for rockweed include bladderwrack and popweed.  It has several lookalikes (F. spiralis, Hesperophycus californicus and Pelvetiopsis limitata), but rockweed can be identified by the central midrib running down each hairless, mitten-shaped leaf.

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Plant of the day: surfgrass

Tufts of surfgrass grow in the sandy channel between tidepools. With their long leaves waving gracefully, they look like a mop of green tossed in the water; the hair of a submerged mermaid. There are two species of surfgrass in California; the flat leaves of Phyllospadix scouleri (pictured here) are 2-4mm wide, while its cousin P. torreyi has round, wiry leaves that are only about 2mm wide.

These plants serve as a nursery and general home for many species of fish, invertebrates and algae. Native Americans would eat the rhizome–and occasionally the leaf, which was preferred when it had herring eggs on it. The dried leaves were used in basketmaking.

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Plant of the day: sea lettuce

Sea lettuce looks exactly like its name: ruffled, brilliant green leaves that grow in tufts from shallow rocks. It’s usually found in calm waters. There are many species of sea lettuce in the Ulva genus, and as of right now I have no idea how to tell them apart–but from what I’ve read, that’s because they are all quite similar in looks and habit.

Sea lettuce is a green alga, and is edible though sometimes a little tough and bland. Some enjoy it for salads. One warning if you are planning to eat some Ulva is that it grows particularly profusely in water that’s been “enriched” by sewage or other pollution. So if you see a dense patch of the stuff, take a close & skeptical look at the nearby landscape before you harvest it…

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Seaweed primer

Green and brown leaves coat the exposed rocks at low tide, or wash up on the shore in great tangles. This is seaweed—renowned delicacy, condiment, and seaside plaything. One nice thing about the seaweeds for the amateur botanist is that none are toxic; some may be tasteless, and others may lead to mild stomach upset, but none are poisonous (though keep in mind that when it washes up on the beach it is dead—and not that good to eat as it has probably started to rot). But in general seaweeds are touted as being packed with vitamins and highly nutritious. And if you ever get stranded on a deserted island, feel free to munch away.

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Though most seaweeds look very plant-like, things aren’t at all that simple. There are three main types of seaweed and they all are considered algae–green algae, red algae, and brown algae. But though they all seem to have a lot in common, they are actually three very separate groups. The green algae are in the plant kingdom, but the brown algae (such as kelp) are actually in the Chromista kingdom, along with the seemingly not-at-all-similar microscopic diatoms. Red algae are in yet a third kingdom, the Protista (along with amoebas and slime molds). All seaweeds have chlorophyll and photosynthesize sunlight, but brown and red algae also have extra pigmentation. Red algae has a compound called phycoerythrin, which lets it absorb blue light waves and hence live deeper in the water than the other algae types.

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“Plant” of the day: bull kelp

Long, thick pieces of brownish-green hose have washed up on a steep and rocky beach. As any beachgoer knows, this is bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana)–a seaweed that can grow up to 60 feet long. When I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend we were cowboys, using the long “ropes” for lassoes. In Alaska, Native Americans used them as lines for deep sea fishing.

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Bull kelp looks very plantlike, but it is actually a brown algae and in an entirely different kingdom. In the deep water where it grows, it anchors itself to the bottom with a root-like “holdfast” while the rest of the plant stretches toward the surface, buoyed by an air-filled pocket that grows at its upper end. Sometimes you’ll find the holdfast still gripping tightly to a rock that has washed up along with the plant. More often, you find the upper part–a rubbery length of stem topped by the bulbous float (which looks a lot like a turkey baster…)

This huge algae is an annual, meaning it grows from a tiny spore and lives its entire life span in only one year. Sometimes it can grow up to 10 inches in a single day! Otters, fish, sea urchins, crabs and other sea creatures live in the long ribbon-like leaves that grow from the top of the plant. You can buy edible bull kelp dried at the health food store or hop in a boat to harvest your own (it’s better fresh than after it’s been uprooted and washed up ashore). The leaves are eaten dried, and once washed and peeled the rubbery stalk can be pickled, or used in relish in the same way as cucumbers or tomatoes.

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“Plant” of the day: turkey tail fungus

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

In celebration of turkey day, here is a turkey tail fungus. I saw this beautiful little fan-shaped fungus on a dead tan oak tree, banded with a rainbow of oranges and whites. It really does look quite a lot like the spread fan of a turkey’s tail.

And we should definitely be thankful for this little decomposer, one of the many fungi that breaks down dead wood and keeps our forests clean. The turkey tail grows mainly on hardwoods such as oaks, but can sometimes be found on conifers as well. Its name–Trametes versicolor–comes from the fact that it comes in many different colors, from indigo to orange to black. But not all fan-shaped fungi are true turkey tails; click here for an easy identification key.

Turkey tails have been used medicinally for centuries; earlier this year, western medicine chimed in with a clinical study suggesting that compounds in this fungus help the immune system fight cancer. Click here for a huff post article by mycology giant Paul Stamets.

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Plant of the day: Monterey pine

This gnarled and knobby tree is a frequent sight long the bluffs and byways. Though it is the most widely planted pine species in the world, its native populations are confined to only three wild stands–two in California and one in Baja. All the other trees (including in Marin) were planted by people, though they now are reproducing on their own.

Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) has three bundled needles just like coulter pine, described yesterday. But the scales of its fat, vaguely egg-shaped cone are blunt rather than sharp; and its needles are noticeably shorter.

Because it tends to grow in crooked and twisted patterns, this tree isn’t much valued for timber in the United States, where it’s mostly planted ornamentally and grown for Christmas trees. Yet it is widely used for timber in other nations–though I’m not sure what they see in it that we don’t.

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Plant of the day: Coulter pine

Since we’ve been talking about pine trees this week… Here is Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri, also known as big cone pine), which I saw growing along the road to the east peak of Mt. Tamalpais. You can tell it from other native pines by its looong needles that are bundled in groups of three, and also by its elongated cones that are composed of sharp hook-shaped scales.

This tree is native to California but not to Marin county; its natural range starts just south of here in Contra Costa and extends down to Mexico. It usually is found scattered in chaparral or forest. Native Americans used the needles for making baskets, and one source says that it (the seed?) was also used as a food. It isn’t particularly valued for wood.

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Plant of the day: amazing exploding pine dwarf mistletoe

Thanksgiving is almost here–which means that mistletoe is almost seasonal. But did you know that there are many different species of mistletoe? The cute leathery leaves and small white fruit meant to inspire holiday smooches are the most popular. But I spotted a different type, the greenish-orange pine dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium campylopodum), growing on a young bishop pine on the Inverness ridge.

The long, slender stems look like mutated pine needles that have grown swollen and deformed, sticking out from the infected tree branch at all angles. Small, scale-like leaves can be green or orange, and look like tiny nubs sticking out of the stem.

Dwarf mistletoe is a creative parasite, burrowing its roots into the branches or trunk of its host tree.  The flowers are pollinated by insects, but can take a year to develop. Once ripe, each berry explodes–firing its single seed up to 30 feet away at speeds that can reach up to 90 feet per second. The tiny seed missile is coated with a sticky goo, so it adheres to whatever it runs into. And if that happens to be a suitable host plant, the cycle repeats itself.

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