Driving out of the Alleghenies

One week ago, I drove the rickety bridge over Brown’s Run for the last time. I turned right, past the field of ironweed and wingstem aster, past the horse pasture and the barn, then turned left toward Huntersville, heading east on Route 39. My 4Runner was packed to the gills, weighted down with several new additions since I arrived in Marlinton in July. Atop the center console was my newest friend, Moona, a young stray cat who adopted me on a camping trip at Tea Creek in late November. In my cooler was a bag of frozen foraged chantarelles, remnants of the final mushroom haul in October. Stuck between the pages of field guides and biology textbooks were pressed herbarium specimens of Dryopteris intermedia and Athrium angustum, which I picked up on a botany survey in September. Packed away in a small box at the bottom of the heap were botanical drawings of some woodland flora, which I made while memorizing species in August. I was driving away from Marlinton, loaded down with five months’ worth of gifts from my experience there.

Last haul of the season: honeys and chantarelles

Two of the most impactful gifts from this experience in the Monongahela could not be packed away in my truck. For one, I found a lifelong friend in my co-intern, Ivy. A top-class work partner, a talented biologist, and a supportive sister, Ivy brought immeasurable joy and depth to my time in Marlinton. We both arrived in Marlinton in July as strangers, in the middle of a pandemic, with little direction around how to begin our project. Together, we pushed one another to memorize local species and hone our botanical vocabulary, design and build a seed processing station in the bunkhouse garage, and process over 100,000 seeds. We drove for hours together, commiserating with one another about the state of politics, co-created botany career goals, and encouraged one another in personal growth. We belted the lyrics to classic tune, danced along roadsides while collecting berries, threw piles of rainbow autumn leaves into the air, and braced against winter winds together atop the Dolly Sods ridgeline. Ivy’s presence brought such delight, inspiration, and comfort to this internship experience for me. We plan to continue to support one another for many years to come as we dive into the next step of our botany careers.

Ivy and Moona

The other intangible gift from the Monongahela was a clear vision of a career in field botany. Working at the Marlinton Ranger Station and at Appalachian Headwaters’ native plant nursery provided me glimpses into career possibilities that fit my skillset and interests, but none of those pathways captured my passion as did botany surveys. The first day I went out on a botany survey with the South Zone field botanist, Emily Magleby, I knew I had found my dream job. Before this internship, I had a glimmer of an idea of what a career in conservation and plant work would look like. Now, having shadowed Emily and the other botany technicians (Ken Hiser and Todd Kuntz) on botany surveys and seed collection days, I have had the opportunity to learn about multiple career paths that lead to the same end of working outdoors, with plants. Thanks to mentorship and story-sharing from these botanists, I now have a clear idea on how to refine my skills and knowledge in order to pursue my dream of outdoor, botany-focused conservation work. I can now streamline my career goals and build on precisely the skills I need to work as a field botanist.

With the new year swiftly approaching, I carry with me the gifts of the Monongahela, both tangible and immaterial. This internship experience has left me with a new cat, a solid career network, several mentors, a specialized set of botany skills, and a sense of clarity about where I will be headed. I am unusually enthusiastic about filling out job applications, feeling supported by my new people and finally qualified for the wide array of job possibilities that await me.

Mountain biking in the Mon

A huge thank you to my mentors (Amy, Cindy, Emily, Ken and Todd) and to Ivy for the learning experiences and encouragement during this difficult season. I couldn’t have done it without you.

A seed in time

It is hard to believe that we are already halfway through December, which means we have one week left in Marlinton before we head home and work remotely until the new year. We have collected more than enough seeds from the available populations from our species list and are spending our final weeks here processing the last few buckets-full of American mountain ash, ironweed, Clematis virginiana, closed-bottle gentian and smooth alder. We may still go out collecting, but only for those seeds which persist into the winter and require minimal processing time: ironweed, staghorn sumac, C. virginiana. By the end of next week, we will have delivered all of our perennial woody plant seeds to Appalachian Headwaters where they will be stored and propagated over the next year. Our annuals will be stored here in Marlinton, since they can be cultivated in situ through wind dispersal and scattering.

A mature red spruce forest (Red Spruce Knob, Pocahontas County, WV)
Amanita flavoconia or “Yellow patches” – a mycorrhizal fungus found in mature red spruce forests. Mycorrhizae connect trees through a network of underground fungal mycelium and allow them to exchange nutrients and hormonal messaging across the landscape.

We have collected thousands upon thousands of seeds during these past few months. It is quite amazing to see the totals: 14,000 seeds of alternate-leaf dogwood, over 15,000 seeds of closed-bottle gentian, and 15,000 of southern mountain cranberry. Even for species that were scantly populated (catberry, for instance) we’ve collected over a thousand seeds. Our repository will serve as a reservoir of plant life used to pioneer forest succession on strip mines in the Monongahela for years to come. In turn, the plants that grow from our seeds will impact this forest for centuries. Heck, millennia! Theoretically, the seeds we’ve collected will act as the first catalysts in the succession of an enduring red spruce forest. These plants can withstand young soils and grow in direct sunlight, and over the next decade they will morph the rocky restoration site into a haven of biodiversity. Birds and other pollinators will consume and disperse the second generation of seeds across the site, reallocating nutrients to the stripped, rocky soil and forming essential foundations for early-succession tree species. As large trees take hold in the newly rich soil, they will shade out the earliest pioneer species from our seed stock, forming an early-succession broadleaf forest. Eventually, red spruce will grow up in the shaded understory of this forest, transforming its soil composition into a deep humus layer filled with mycorrhizal fungi that push out early pioneer species and favor the dominance of late-succession coniferous tree species, and plants that can survive in the dark understory.

One must zoom out at least one hundred years to see how our daily efforts will endure. Three generations from now, visitors may come across Sharp’s Knob and walk upon a cushion of moss and knee-deep duff teeming with a root network of ectomycorrhizal fungi. Maybe they will breathe the cool, terpene-scented air found only in a copse of red spruce, their eyes comfortably shaded by the dense canopy above. Perhaps they, too, will collect fruits, but instead in the form of Vaccinium berries, mayapples, mushrooms, spruce cones. And on the way out, they’re bound to drop a few on the ground, dispersing the next generation of forest flora.

And the cycle continues…

Processing seeds, processing thoughts

Our very first packet of processed seeds!

It finally snowed here in Marlinton, and all of the plant species on our list have officially gone to seed. We spent the past month driving north to collect from the tundra-esque Dolly Sods Wilderness and Spruce Knob, the highest points in the state. As we neared the end of October, our seed collection days shifted quickly from sunburnt, humid adventures to snowy and frigid races to the finish line. Last week at Dolly Sods, we alternated between collecting berries in sleet and jumping into the truck to blast heat on our wet-gloved hands. Collecting seed in cold weather at these higher elevations is an exhilarating experience and reminds me of late July in northern Alaska. The wind smells the same – of encroaching frost and decomposing leaves. There is overlap in foliage as well – caribou moss, stunted, leaning spruce trees and lots of lichen on bare rock. It’s quite amazing how the ecotone at high elevation bogs in West Virginia can bear resemblance to latitudes as far north as the tree line on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Blending southern mountain cranberries before sifting out their tiny seeds

Between collection days, we clean our latest seedstock. It has been an honor to work with Morgan of Appalachian Headwaters, who has been teaching us proper technique for cleaning and storing specific seed types. We have been lucky enough to have access to the cleaning tools and facilities at Appalachian Headwaters, and we are ordering some more equipment for making the same use of our own miniature processing plant here in Marlinton.

I was surprised to find that seed cleaning is mostly intuitive and simply demands everyday resourcefulness. How do you remove cranberry seeds from all that berry pulp? Put electrical tape on the blades of an ordinary blender and chop it up, then filter it out through multiple sieves. How do you remove the outer layer of film from alternate-leafed dogwood? Rub it furiously on a screen and then pick it off with your nails. The whole process of cleaning is unexpectedly familiar, like working soil in a garden. With all that repeated movement, it’s easy to get in the zone and process your thoughts alongside the seeds as you pick seeds apart and wash away the pulp.

By the end of November, we will have finished up seed collection and will continue to process the seeds we’ve collected. Until next time!

The beginnings of seed season

Overnight, the Alleghenies transitioned from summer to early autumn. A breezy, warm, humid Sunday afternoon gave way to a morning of unmistakably crisp, cool weather: wool-sock-weather, wear-a-scarf-indoors-weather, light-your-woodstove-in-the-morning-weather. And you know what that means – seed collection season is well underway. As the humans here in Marlinton begin to layer up in cozy knit hats, windproof shells and bulky scarves, so too the plants shed their showy inflorescences in favor of cupule caps, seed coats, and follicle wraps.

We will collect gentian when it goes to seed in a few weeks.

I used to overlook seed season, which to me merely marked the period between the summer bloom and the delightful pigments revealed in autumn foliage. But this year is different. This year, my whole job revolves around finding, harvesting and processing wild seeds. Just today we harvested staghorn sumac, black elderberry, mountain ash, pokeweed and winterberry holly, while making notes on species verging on ripening next week: wild hydrangea, common milkweed, wild raisin. Instead of my standard indifference to the dried-up flower heads or inedible berries lining the mountain roads, I now find myself deeply entangled in a rotating wheel of fresh questions: which plants have gone to seed, and which fruits are ready to pick? What kind of fruit is this, and how can you get the seeds out? Does the seed grow easily when scattered on fertile soil, or does its hard outer layer require mechanical breakdown within the gizzard of a bird? The latter can be dealt with artificially (with scarification– no animals involved), but it certainly adds a few steps to the process. The propagation of wild seeds for ecological restoration work requires additional measures which the domesticated garden does not, but that’s the fun of it.

Our initial plans to work with a local nonprofit to process our collected seedstock have changed, and Ivy and I are embracing the challenge of doing it by ourselves. With the help of our supervisor, we are building our own seed cleaning station comprised of large buckets, trash bins, several gold pans of various sizes, and a few large tarps. With these tools, we will extract the seeds from the fruits we’ve collected, a process called “cleaning.” The cleaning process will involve de-awning and de-hulling any dry outer coverings and appendages, stomping on and shaking seeds loose from their fruit capsules, sifting seed contents through various screens, and winnowing away excess fluff using box fans and a tarp. By the end of the process, only the bare seeds will remain (theoretically). We will then bring these seeds to a local greenhouse where we will ready them for propagation and seed mixes. Soon enough, our wild seed mixes and propagated plants will be used to restore native red spruce forest to one of the reclaimed mining sites in our ranger district.

But for now, we will spend the rest of September and October focusing entirely on collection, dying our thumbs magenta with pokeweed berries, clipping off staghorn sumac and checking milkweed follicles for ruptured sutures. The collected seed will be stored in our seed cooler seed season is over, the autumn leaves have fallen, and it’s time to begin the cleaning process. Until next month!


Jewelweed magic

We’re not collecting jewelweed, but its popping seeds sure are fun to set off

Fruity treasures

There is a remarkable place behind the Monongahela Ranger Station in Marlinton, West Virginia. Beyond the parking lot, through Mountain View graveyard and around the forest road gate lie the remains of the old Marlin Mountain fruit farm, now regenerated into mixed oak-maple hardwood forest speckled with patches of rhododendron in the understory. From the standpoint of the common recreationist, this deciduous forest may appear altogether ordinary, if not dull. It is likely that the inconspicuous treasures of these woods will be missed by anyone who arrives ill-equipped for noticing the hidden. Finding the enchantments of this forest requires a keen eye, a sharp nose, and an openness to impulsive excursions off trail. A seeker must be willing to break through spider webs, crawl over windsnap, kneel frequently in the mud, and earnestly enjoy the rain. If you’re like me and are prone to wandering, and you have plans to go on a casual trail run through this forest, be warned: your plans have been thwarted. 

Although it was early golden hour in the open expanse of the graveyard, the gilded, green vegetation diminished as soon as I passed under the first arch of trees on the forest road. In the dim light, trunks and leaf litter fused into homogenous gray walls hemming the dirt road, which itself was barely bright enough to continue. I pressed on at a cautious pace, scanning the road for ankle-rolling rocks while keeping my peripheral awareness open. Fifty paces into the jog, I was stopped in my tracks. Two tiny orange sentinels stood in my path. 

Cantharellus lateritius

Chantarelles! Beyond the first two mushrooms was a whole line of them dappling the road, glowing orange against the muted gray backdrop of leaves and soil. I had come across chantarelles only once before, though as an amateur mycologist I have had an eye out for them for many years. I felt as though a huge welcoming gift had been bestowed on me by the forest. Chantarelles are some of the most popular edible wild mushrooms, and are sought after worldwide. Unable to contain my excitement, I spread my arms open toward the canopy and let out a beaming “Whoop!” of unbridled gratitude. Although these little chantarelles were far too small to pick that evening, I made a mental note to return in a few days. It was clear that this road had not been used for some time, and I felt safe to assume that no human would come pick them before I returned.  

I continued on my run, but only after a few moments with my belly to the soil and my nose pressed against the little orange mushrooms, inhaling that signature fruity fragrance. As soon as I started to run, I was dodging another patch of tiny chantarelles mixed into a rainbow of mushroom hues: seafoam green Russula variata, scarlet Russula emetica, bright white Destroying Angel, brown and yellow boletes. I had to run on my tiptoes to keep from smooshing them. Only a hundred paces later, I was stopped once more. To my left, a prominent pearly shape stood out from behind an oak against the ever-darkening wall of gray woods. I had to investigate! Jumping off the road and sliding down the embankment, I swung around the tree to have look. An enormous, bright white mushroom with a cap the size of a Frisbee shone up at me. I brimmed with awe at its size and measured its diameter with my hands: ten inches across. Wow! The largest gilled mushroom I’ve ever seen, second only to Berkeley’s Polypore, an edible polypore which can grow to be more than three feet wide. While beautiful, my newfound Green-Spored Parasol (Lepiota molybdites) is not edible. In fact, it is responsible for the greatest number of mushrooms poisonings in the Appalachian Mountains. I would be admiring this mushroom, but certainly not eating it. 

Lepiota molybdites

A heavy mist set in, and it began to rain. I hopped back on the road and continued on up the ridge, being stopped every few yards by a new fungal form. Fat boletes, itsy Hydrocybes and convex Lactarius peckii lining the road caught my eye and beckoned me to stop and notice. I was walking and squatting far more often than jogging. My run was not turning out as planned, but it didn’t matter. I felt as though the forest was revealing itself on another level, and I didn’t want to miss it.  

Just as I was getting back to a more normal running pace, I glimpsed a patch of humungous, bright orange, smooth chanterelles lining the road along a rhododendron patch. I chuckled at the pure gratitude I felt at the two thumbnail-size chantarelles I saw only thirty minutes before. These were most definitely ripe for the picking. I was nowhere near finished with my run, so I marked the spot on the trail with sticks for my way back. I continued to mark the trail for the rest of the chanterelle patches (and black trumpets too!) which kept getting larger and more plentiful as I climbed higher in elevation. It was evident that the chantarelles were ripening on an elevation gradient, beginning high in the mountains and continuing downslope with the progression of late summer. A week after my first run-in with the tiny chantarelles at the beginning of this story, they were the size of my palm, and the ones at the top of the ridge had long ago decomposed.  

On my return journey, I picked half of the largest chantarelles, leaving many mushrooms of different life stages to carry on reproduction. Even so, I had a shirt-full of mushrooms by the time I reached the gate. My arm was tired from the load, and I frequently had to switch from one hand to the other as I jogged back home. 

It was dark by the time I got to the house. Warm light streamed from the windows, and someone was playing jazz. I kicked off my soaked shoes before I walked into the kitchen to greet my new friends, bounty in-hand.