Nursery Trip and a Day of Plant Keying

This month was pretty typical – with a lot of time spent on many new collections and updating our data to make sure everything was in order as our collection season begins to slow down. At the beginning of the month, we were lucky enough to be able to make a trip to Coeur d’alene to hand deliver some of our more perishable fleshy fruits. These included collections of Actaea rubra (baneberry), Prunus virginiana (chokecherry), Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry), Rubus idaeus (raspberry), Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnick), Berberis repens (creeping oregon-grape), and Symphoricarpos albus (common snowberry). Since all of these species are at least semi-fleshy fruits and needed to be refrigerated, we decided to drive them to the nursery rather than sending them through the mail with the less perishable collections.

Picture depicts Symphoricarpos albus growing in the Big Belts on 09/13.

On September 7th, we packed these collections into a bear proof cooler with ice and started our long drive towards Coeur d’alene. The trip took us over 12 hours of total driving time, but, luckily, we were able to break up the trip and stay a night in Missoula, MT with Selah – a fellow CBG intern working at the Lolo NF. We were so thankful to Selah for letting us stay with her and enjoyed catching up and talking about how all of our summers were going. The next morning, we left for the nursery. 

At the nursery, we were able to take a tour around the facilities. Many of the seed cleaning tools we saw were similar to the ones at the Lucky Peak Nursery I visited during the CBG training in May, but it was still cool to see them again. It was also awesome to see all of the seedlings that were being grown in the greenhouses – especially the area filled with Whitebark Pine saplings. I was happy to see so much effort being done to help out the Whitebark Pine that are currently endangered due to blister rust. While we were there, we also saw the nursery workers collecting seed from some of the bulk seed plots using seed vacuums – which was very neat. There was also a very cute cat that we got to say hi to who was living at the nursery. After the tour, we gave them our collections of fruits, as well as some that Selah gave us to deliver from the Lolo NF. Finally, we picked up 9 large bags of seed that our supervisor ordered to be used at a superfund site and started the long journey back to Neihart, MT.

Picture depicts Rubus parviflorus growing in the Big Belts on 08/21.

Another fun day was in the second half of the month – spending an entire day keying out plants with two of the Helena botany techs. We had joined them on some rare plant surveys before and always came to them with any questions – so they decided to visit our station to help us on some difficult species. To prepare for their visit, we collected some samples from a mining site and a burn area that we were considering collecting seed from. These samples were mostly all asters of some kind – some Solidago (goldenrod) and some purple asters. They also helped us make a final decision about the geum that was growing outside of the station (which I wrote about in my blog post last month). 

Picture depicts the burn area with which some of the samples came from. 09/19

We used many different resources to accurately key out the samples. We had both the Montana Vascular Plant key as well as the Pacific Northwest key, the live samples, some pressed samples of geum and their seeds, and another key that was brought by the botany techs. We also referenced samples saved in an online herbarium. 

After a long day, we decided our collected samples were Eurybia merita, Solidago missouriensis, Solidago multiradiata, Solidago nemoralis, Symphyotrichum ciliolatum, and Geum aleppicum. Even then, many of these were a ‘best fit’ situation where they did not fully seem to fit in one species description – one would just match up better than the other possibilities. Plants can be tricky, so it was nice to have other people to discuss these samples with and multiple sources that we could use and compare to each other. 

Picture depicts a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake that we drove by in the Little Belts on 09/12.

Musings of a Seed Collector


Phacelia hastata sits there taunting me. One side still has its purple, curly inflorescence while the other side is dull brown – dried and perfect for collecting. A few more sit just 5 ft away from the first, but all are at least 10 feet above me. Phacelia loves to grow in hard to reach places where there is little competition and plenty of access to the sun. Perfect for the plant, but difficult for the seed collector. 

I grab everything I need from the truck – radio, paper bag, a glove – and glance back at the obstacle before me. This specific site was a steep, rocky slope next to the road made up of sheet rock. Slowly and carefully I start climbing the slope. Every two steps I took counted as one as the rocks shifted beneath my weight, but at least I was making progress. I sat low to the ground with my knees on the slope whenever I could in order to keep my center of gravity close to the slope itself and used my hands as additional support as I climbed. I made it to each plant and lightly ran my gloved hand along the dried fruits – allowing some to easily fall into my palm before throwing them into the paper bag. I had to wear a glove for this endeavor because the common name “Scorpionweed” for Phacelia hastata is very fitting as the fruits have hairs that are irritating and prickly to touch. I adjust my footholds and continue to make my way across the slope to the many Phacelia plants growing in this difficult terrain. I volunteered to go up to this height – my partners for today, Madeline and Stella, choosing to collect from the plants lower to the road.

I found this collection to be a fun challenge and enjoyed the accomplished feeling as I successfully transversed the steep slope. Some areas were easier than others. At some points I could stand up and carefully walk diagonally up the slope, while at other points I would slide down a few feet before having to find another path to go on. 

By the end of the collection time, I had collected half a paper bag of phacelia fruits/seeds and gotten covered in dust from the slope but felt very accomplished by overcoming the challenge. I was happy to have been able to get the genetics from the higher individuals to include into our collection and happy that I could climb this slope at all – one of the other sites which we wanted to collect Phacelia was even more difficult to climb and we had stayed to just the lower individuals because of this.

The Grasshopper

*Plop*. A grasshopper hops onto the windshield of our truck. We stop, but it seems as though it has no intention to leave. Slowly, we continue on our path. The grasshopper faces the same way that we are headed, his yellow body braced against the movement of the truck. We make our way past a small meadow and to another forested area when the grasshopper finally hops off of its own volition. I could not help but wonder if it knew what it was doing. If it was just using us as a way to create its own adventure and explore a new area just as we are using this opportunity to explore as well. I can only wish the grasshopper well on its future travels. 

A grasshopper in the Castle Mountains of the Helena-Lewis and Clark NF

Battle of Geum

For a few weeks now, my mentor, Victor, and I have been debating the identification of a specific Geum plant growing outside the office door. In the beginning of the summer, Victor told me that this one was ‘Geum macrophyllum’ which is one of the species on our collection list. At the time I did not question it, but this past month we ran into a couple other Geums that look very similar – especially now that they are fruiting instead of flowering. The three are Geum macrophyllum, Geum aleppicum, and Geum rivale. Rivale flowers are pink and nodding while the flowers of the other two are yellow – allowing easy distinction between the three when there are flowers present but all of their fruits are ‘spiny with achene beaks’ as stated in our plant key and look very similar at a glance. All three of these plants also grow in very similar habitats: moist sites next to rivers. Luckily, even with just fruits the rivale flowers still keep their purple sepals which is the key difference between rivale and the other two and also has the longest achene beaks. 

The next step, to separate out macrophyllum, is dependent on whether the lower portion of the style is minutely glandular or not at all. My partner, Tori, and I have had quite a lot of trouble deciding whether something is glandular or not throughout this summer – even with the use of a hand lens – and so while we do check for this step, we also looked to see if there were some other differences between the two. One of the Botany techs on the Helena side of the forest, Nate, responded to this question by saying that the macrophyllum receptacle is hairless while the other two possibilities in the key are not. Those other two being Geum aleppicum and canadense. Canadense is automatically crossed out as an option due to it having white flowers and no known cases of it living in the south west side of Montana – where we are collecting at. 

I took Nate’s shortcut and ran with it – informing Victor that our plant outside the door was indeed aleppicum rather than macrophyllum. Victor did not believe me at first – especially since Nate’s difference was not in the key that we used. He looked up pictures and tried to compare the species that way. In the past few weeks, he changed his mind on what species that plant was about 5 times before finally deciding today that I was right. The mystery Geum growing by the office door was indeed Geum allepicum – now added to our collection list along with Geum rivale. 

Hard to see, but a population of Geum rivale in the Little Belt Mountains.

Full Day of Seed Collection

Like every other work day, my seed collection partner, Tori, and I planned out a route through the forest to travel. Most of the first couple months working in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest involved scouting out populations and exploring new parts of the forest, but this time would be the first day dedicated solely to seed collection and brought along two Montana Conservation Corps interns who were stationed at the same forest as us this summer. The population we would be collecting from was near a small pond in the Castle mountains of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Tori had scouted it out at the end of last week and said it was ready to collect. The aim was to spend the whole day collecting Geum triflorum, or prairie smoke. 

Thorsen’s pond in the Castle Mountains of the Helena-Lewis and Clark NF picture taken 06/15/2023 when the scouting point was taken.

We drove for an hour and a half, stopping along the way to check on a population of Phacelia hastata, before arriving at the intended collection point. Strangely enough, we did not easily see the wispy fruits made by Geum triflorum and got out of the truck to inspect closer – in case they were blending in with the other plants in the area. On closer inspection, there were not nearly as many of the plants as we had seen when the population was first noted.  Looking around the area, we realized that this location had been destroyed by grazing cattle based on the many cow patties around the area. We also noticed that the other side of a nearby fence was far more lush  than the area around the pond – evidently the cows had not crossed to that side. Because of this, we decided to adapt our plan and move further down the road looking out for Geum triflorum outside of the intended collection point as well as checking on a Frasera speciosa (Green Gentian) population that we had recorded before. 

A population of Geum triflorum in the Little Belts with a mix of flowers and fruits. 06/14/2023

Soon enough, we reached a scouting point we had made for Frasera speciosa and the population was perfect! The fruit pods were dried up and each fruit was full of mature seeds. Then we each armed ourselves with double-bagged paper bags and started collecting Frasera speciosa seeds. Each of us had our own preferred methods – either picking off the entire dried up fruits filled with seeds, sitting by a plant and dumping out the seeds, or bending over the top half of the plant into the bag and letting the seeds fall out with a few shakes. We continued for a couple hours before returning to the truck for lunch and then moved down the road a little more where we saw a moderate, ready to harvest, population  of Geum triflorum too! To get both species at the same time, I tied two double-bagged paper bags to my belt, one for Frasera and the other for the Geum, and continued to collect both species for a few more hours – moving down the road just once more. A couple of us had earbuds in and were listening to music or podcasts while collecting and, since I had forgotten my own earbuds, I listened to the fire team talking over the forest service radio. At one point the clouds looked pretty ominous,but luckily they passed over us without any droplets and the rest of the time went well. 

After returning to the station, we weighed each bag in order to calculate how many seeds we collected and set the seeds in a container with a no-bug strip for the weekend. After doing some math, we figured we collected about 50,000 viable Geum triflorum seeds and about 70,000 viable Frasera speciosa seeds on this one trip!

Bags of seeds. Geum triflorum to the left and Frasera speciosa to the right.

This was just the third day of actually collecting seeds for me, and I was happy with how it went! It was a little sad that the original location we planned to collect from had been destroyed, but sometimes things happen and we have to be able to adapt. So many things can prevent seed collection – from cows eating and trampling over the plants, missing the sometimes short fruiting times, a lack of fruiting (as we have seen so far with Frageria virginiana (virginia strawberry) and Berberis repens (creeping oregon-grape)), or the abundance of invasive species causing us to not be able to collect in an area. Even so, we were successful in still collecting the planned species as well as another in the same area and are hoping to switch over to mostly making collections for the rest of the season!

A spider chilling in a Frasera speciosa plant, next to all the fruits. 08/02/2023

New Place, New Plants, New Possibilities

As someone who has lived most of their life below an elevation of 3500 ft on the east coast, moving to the west for the summer and staying mostly around the 6000-7000 ft elevation range has been a great adventure. All of the wildlife is vastly different from what I am used to and I was lucky enough to see my first moose on my first day in Montana. Since then I have seen many new animals in person including elk, antelope, ground squirrels, marmots, snowshoe hares, new snakes, and my new favorite birds – magpies. I am also excited and apprehensive about the other new, larger animals that are more common here compared to home – grizzly bears and mountain lions – but have yet to run into them. 

Enjoying a lunch break in a meadow during a scouting trip at the Big Snowy Mountains.

Along with many new animals that I had not seen before, I am also excited to see and learn of lots of new plants that I had not previously known as well! Some of my favorites so far include all of the species of Phacelia (Scorpionweed), Penstemon (Beardtongues), and Mertensia (Bluebells) which I had not seen in my home state of North Carolina. And I am definitely looking forward to trying some huckleberries for the first time whenever they are in season! There are also some new species within genuses I already was familiar with such as Actaea rubra, Acer glabrum, and many new pines and spruces. The mountains in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest as well as the ones I am used to from North Carolina are both very beautiful and yet so different from each other. Montana has way fewer broadleaf trees than what I am used to and I am looking forward to learning all of the conifers that make up the amazing forest that I am working with this summer. 

Phacelia spp. found June 28th during a trip through the Big Belts. Not the ones on our list, but still beautiful.

Already I have gained many new skills and experiences and I can not wait to see what the rest of the summer brings to me from this wonderful opportunity and I am so excited to help contribute to future restoration projects in order to keep these forests thriving!

Memorial Falls at the Little Belts – just a fun day trip.