He is Trampling Out the Vintage Where the Dogwood Seeds are Stored

The high desert sun over the Payette has receded into misty mornings and many a rainy day, and the larches and aspens are turning to spires of gold among the evergreens. The past month has been a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure story; the credits have begun to roll for the main storyline of seed collecting, so we’ve had some time to work with a handful of other crews on a smattering of side quests.
We started off the month with a collection of red-osier dogwood seeds (Cornus sericea) that we suggested as a good way to learn to collect not only tree seeds but also fleshy fruit. The question of the hour then became: how do we get these out of the little white berries they grow inside? The answer, it turns out, was to dump them into a 5-gallon bucket and stomp them like wine grapes. They feel so, so weird between your toes – would not recommend! But after laying them in the sun for a few days to dry, we ended up with a rather bulky bag of about 40,000 seeds. Not too bad for two hours’ worth of collecting.

Why did we think this was a good idea…?

After this rather bizarre episode, we tagged along with a wildlife biologist to retrieve game cameras on the farthest-flung reaches of the forest out by Hells Canyon. We returned with a camera roll full of elk, fishers, and bears, an incredible panoramic view of America’s deepest river gorge, and a new population of a rare bitterroot flower. We spent the next week or two wrapping up collections of roses, alders and daisies before Dan took a week to visit Great Basin. I stayed behind to finish some office work and map streams in a timber sale with our hydrology crew, and then it was my turn to take a week off and drive through the gorgeous Idaho panhandle.
I spent most of my week’s vacation touring Coeur d’Alene, a quaint little lakeside city where the rain and coffee abound this time of year – and, it turns out, some large furry beasts. On the far shore of Coeur d’Alene lake, a campground is tucked away in the pines, accessible only by kayaking across the water. I paddled an evening’s worth of gear across, set up a tent, and was about to make supper and go to bed when I heard the sounds of heavy animal breaths just into the woods. Shining my flashlight in their direction revealed – two large glowing eyes staring back at me, about three feet off the ground. It may be worth mentioning at this point that Coeur d’Alene is on the edge of grizzly country. I packed my tent back into my kayak and muscled the boat back across the lake with a furious intensity that would make any Viking captain proud.

After this rather startling misadventure, I spent the rest of the week exploring the town, fly-fishing, hiking to waterfalls in the Selkirk Mountains, and generally having the best time of the summer. Not to mention all the other off-the-cuff day trips we’ve taken: I finally caught my first trout of the season in the beautiful Clearwater River and went sandboarding (!) at Bruneau Dunes State Park. It seems unbelievable that the end of our time in Idaho will be here in only two more weeks, but I’ve experienced and learned so much in the past few months. I’ll be glad to be home soon, but saying adieu to the Rocky Mountains is going to be a bittersweet farewell.

The Cookcamp Chronicles

Our sylvan saunter sojourning for seeds has scattered us scouts though streamsides, summits, swamps, steppes and ski slopes. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of driving up and down many a bumpy dirt road, hunting far-flung patches of plants and filling bag after bag with countless thousands of seeds. Our basement is starting to be overrun with an ever-growing tower of brown paper bags with eerie-sounding Latin labels – are we botanists or Hogwarts wizards?
Our wide-ranging adventures over two national forests mean that we’ve been camping almost every week this month to cover enough ground. After the first few days of eating only hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches, I shifted gears and decided that if I was going to do all this camp cooking this summer, I was going to do it right. I like a good camp-cooked meal as much as anyone, so it’s a good thing I have a job that makes me hike a lot.

With enough determination, one can cook (almost) anything over a campfire or a single-burner stove that can be made at home. On one such adventure, I spent an evening frying Monte Cristo sandwiches over a campfire – a delicious combination of ham and cheese between French toast, drizzled with pancake syrup. For dessert, I wrapped two Pillsbury crescent rolls around a stick, fried them over a fire, and filled the resulting tube with pudding and whipped cream for an eclair that would make any French chef proud. .I followed it up the next two nights with French toast and a recipe from the original 1911 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook for Canned Salmon on Toast, essentially a glorified if archaic tuna salad. The recipe begins, “Dip slices of stale bread into smoking hot lard.” I’d call the result mediocre at best, with a pallid gray color unbecoming of salmon, but nothing tasted better after a long day of hiking (especially when I followed it with a round of French toast for dessert). The next week, I went out on a limb and tried a recipe for spicy potato and leek soup with shrimp that originally came out of an old fantasy book I read in middle school. It took near the entire evening to simmer over our campfire but boy, it sure tasted good! On the contrary, the recipe feeds about four people – being only Dan and myself, we awkwardly taped the pot lid closed and set it in the trunk of our jeep. The next morning, Dan was souped out, leaving me staring down a very large breakfast of seemingly endless shrimp. If you’re going to cook enough to have leftovers the next morning, make sure you have someone who will actually eat them!

How to Get Poisoned in the Woods

By and large, seed collecting here in central Idaho has been going quite well. We’ve picked bags and bags of fleabanes, needlegrass, wheatgrass, and fiddlenecks. The season has been a bit behind so far, but the last few weeks, our plants must have finally heard the wake-up call of summer and decided to finally get in motion. All of a sudden, we went from having no seeds to gather to running all over the forest, trying to keep up with everything!

There are a handful of plants that are still evading us, of course. One of those is Lathyrus lanszwertii, the Nevada pea. We’ve followed a handful of leads for it, all of which turned out to be dead ends – including a half-hour drive on a very bumpy mountain road to be taunted by a patch of Lathyrus pauciflorus, the few-flowered pea. (Guess how much luck we’d have trying to collect 30,000 seeds from that?) And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so Dan and I have been on high alert for anything that vaguely resembles this enigmatic legume. Our curiosity (read: desperation) led us last week into a decent bit of misadventure.

Early Wednesday morning, while scouting for wild mint (Agastache urticifolia), I followed the trail a little farther up the streambank to find a string of brilliant purple flowers growing among the alders. Could this finally be our pea? I hopped over the rocks to pick a flower off and scour our field guide. It had five petals, reflexed backwards, pinnate leaves, a vining growth form – this had to be it. But the stamens grew in a dense, tangled knot around the center of the flower. That’s strange, I thought. Fabaceae has just a handful of stamens and they’re fused to each other.

We started searching the guide for any kind of purple flowers. Suddenly, Dan insisted, “Drop that thing on the ground right now.”

“What?” I said.

“Get rid of it! That’s called monkshood. Haven’t you ever heard of it?”


“It’s, like, the most poisonous plant in the West. Eating one flower is enough to knock you dead. It’ll absorb through skin, too.”

Aconitum columbianum – watch out for this one!

Holy moly! This stuff is no joke. I did some digging on the internet, and sure enough, the lethal dose of monkshood is about a gram. It turns out its Latin name, Aconitum, means “without suffering” because its symptoms appear within minutes, and you die within a few hours. People have actually died from just skin contact with it, although all the reports seemed to be from gardeners who planted it (!?) and were working amidst it for hours on end. We hopped in the jeep and quickly drove back to our house to shower off. After scrubbing our hands with every kind of soap we owned and satisfying ourselves that we weren’t likely to die, we headed back out to cautiously get back to work – and, as any good botanist would do, to get a picture of it for our own plant photo album.

As they say, an adventure is a story that is miserable while you’re creating it and fun to tell in comfort later. And this sure was one of those! Make sure you know the poisonous plants that grow where you’re working and how to avoid them – and definitely don’t eat things you don’t recognize!


Welcome to the Jungle

My boss’s cubicle has a quote hung on the wall from Enrico Fermi, the Nobel-winning physicist, when he once had a student ask him to recall the name of a particular subatomic particle. “Young man,” the professor replied, “if I could remember the names of all these particles, I would be a botanist.” In my first month since moving to Idaho from Pennsylvania, I have learned just how true that statement was. There has certainly been a bit of a learning curve to adapting to a whole new set of plants, most of which I had never seen before. Botanizing in a new part of the country is a bit like sticking a firehose of information in your mouth – open the valve and just try to swallow everything you can. What was this death camas plant that everyone was trying to get rid of? And why would anyone ever eat common camas, which looks almost exactly the same until it flowers?

But there have been a few important things that softened the landing a little and made botany in Idaho a little less intimidating. The first was realizing just how many Western plants have close relatives in the East, plants that I was already quite familiar with. I’ve never seen Galium aparine or Trillium ovatum before, but the other species in those genera are quite common in Pennsylvania. It’s also been very helpful to work with a crew of Westerners who know what grows here and to have the colossal Flora of the Pacific Northwest to walk me through. And wouldn’t you believe, the born-and-raised Idahoans are just as unfamiliar with Pennsylvanian plants as I was with theirs. I’ve learned dozens and dozens of plants so far and more are sure to come.

We’ve scouted for many types of wildflowers so far and learned the trials and tribulations of keying out huge genera like Eriogonum (wild buckwheat) or Erigeron (fleabane). Staring through a microscope to piece apart minute details of a specimen can be exhausting, but it’s incredible to realize just how much diversity there is among the plants of the Rocky Mountains. I have a special passion for botanical Latin, and I’ve spent many an evening by our campfire reading through our flora to learn the fascinating history of why plants were given the names they were – either for famous scientists, ancient medicinal uses, or an author’s one-year-old daughter in one special case. We’ve had the opportunity to hike many a mile in search of rare mosses and onions, and seen a great diversity of other plants and flowers along the way (not to mention an incredible hike).

Lewisia sacajaweana, a rare plant we spent a day scouting for a population of. It is named for Capt. Merrriwether Lewis and Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

But life, just like botany, is a mosaic of little pieces that may look disjointed, but when you find the little similarities, they fit together into an extraordinary picture. When I first moved here, Idaho seemed like a whole puzzle of disassembled pieces – I dropped my dad off at the airport after our road trip and immediately found that every hotel in Boise was fully booked for a Luke Combs concert. I drove an hour out of town to find a room, and the only thing keeping me together was getting a surprise call from my old college roommate. How was I ever going to survive here?

But what a place Idaho has turned out to be since then! The forests and the fishing are incomparable, and I have met more than one person with surprising connections – the Mennonite grocers from my state, another Penn State Agriculture graduate, and many others. And imagine my surprise when I learned that my roommate, a wildlife biologist from North Carolina, was my fifth cousin! Idaho is still a bit of a puzzle, but sure enough, the pieces are starting to come together.

Welcome to the jungle, it gets better here every day.