A botany student heard that some sensitive plants growing in a headwater seep were holding up a timber sale, and wished that he might see them. Another botanist told him where these plants, called Victorin’s grape-ferns, could be found. He visited the spot where the plants were growing on an isolated lens of serpentine soil, and wanted to know what their scientific name was.
Fortunately, he had a botanical flora in which to match the name to the appearance of the plant. Unfortunately, no names matched the pictures in the flora.
Fortunately he was able use his Flora of the Pacific Northwest to eliminate the leads with finely-dissected ultimate segments. Unfortunately, there were still three possible taxa matching the appearance of the plant.
Fortunately, he was able eliminate two plants and key his specimens out to Botrychium lunaria variety onondagense using his flora. Unfortunately, he also consulted his five-volume “Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest” which cast dispersion on this determination.
Fortunately, he found a clue in the five-volume set by noting that only one plant uses “grape-fern” as part of its name. Unfortunately, this species, Botrychium simplex, did not look like the plants called Victorin’s grape-fern.
Fortunately, the student knew better than to use obscure common names to key plants. Unfortunately, the Latin names were also obscure.
Fortunately, he had access to the internet. Unfortunately the data was in Adobe PDF format which caused his computer to become surlish and need constant updates.
Fortunately he was able to translate the file to HTML format, using a free shareware program that will convert any document to Word format. Unfortunately, the output was garbled by the process and the correct Latin binomial was not readable.
Fortunately, the genus was found by Googling for the word “grape-fern”. Unfortunately, there were a lot of plants in that genus, called Botrychium.
Fortunately, he had a picture of the plant to use in an image search. Unfortunately, the picture only showed the top part of a single sterile leaf blade.
Fortunately, he found the website for the USDA Plants database for his state. Unfortunately, the name wasn’t in there, either.
Fortunately, he was suspicious and checked the Plants database to find the valid synonyms of older taxa. Unfortunately, Botrychium lunaria var. onondagense is not a valid species, and so the name defaulted to Botrychium lunaria, the common moonwort.
Fortunately, the student was a very, very suspicious individual and doubted practically everything he saw or heard, so he also used the Plants database to look up the given synonyms, and wonder of wonders, he found an older synonym that was now the accepted Latin name – Botrychium minganense. This pleased him greatly, because the author was Victorin and this matched the common name he had originally been given, although it was now officially called the “Mingan moonwort”.
Unfortunately, the plants database did not mention that Botrychium minganense had recently been segregated into several distinct species.
Fortunately, the student also had a Flora of North America to confirm the identity. Unfortunately, the Flora did not differentiate between the eastern and western forms of Botrychium minganense.
Fortunately, the student had a reprint from an obscure fern journal that described the western and eastern forms of the plants he visited, and the student was finally convinced that the plants were Botrychium minganense after all. Unfortunately, the site he visited had several species of Botrychium growing together with intermediate forms present.
Fortunately, the other species was Botrychium ascendens, an even rarer plant and a subject of intense interest amongst those who study these things. Unfortunately, the student never learned of this and the site remained an obscure footnote in the liner margin of life.
Fortunately, he was able to succeed in life as a lawnmower repair man. Unfortunately, Botrychium minganense was delisted and the grove of trees was marked to be logged.
Ending alternative 1: Fortunately, the local Forest Watch cut a deal with the logger and the stand was spared in exchange for volume elsewhere, along with a million dollars thrown in to sweeten the deal. Unfortunately, a culvert on the skid road above became clogged by the rare, clay-like soil of the headwater seep, and a massive debris flow poured forth and buried the rare plants under tons of uprooted trees.
Ending alternative 2: God intervened and arranged for the District Ranger to have a vision that there would be bad juju if the stand containing those plants was logged. The trees were cordoned off, while all around there was a gnashing of teeth and thrashing of chainsaws and trashing of the land and lo, when it was all done, the small stand of trees with their rare plants were still there. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, God works in mysterious ways. Recall the exquisite rarity of the delicate little ferns. Every aspect of the habitat affected their survival–the climate, the elevation, the precipitation, the soil. And the soil was of a most unusual type, being formed of hardpan clay derived from volcanic rocks on top of unconsolidated glacial alluvium derived from granites.
And God said let there be rain, let there be lots of rain. The clayey soil which normally was deep underground had been exposed by the thrashing of the loggers. Millions of microscopic hexagonal plates of clay particles rose in the swelling waters like a million stars. When they came to a culvert they resisted, and fought the water, and became like blood platelets, obstructing the flow. For a while the culvert was stopped. But the rain continued, and the trickle became a stream, and a little splash became a gash and the wound began to grow. The saturated soil expanded and small rocks began to roll, then bigger rocks, and then suddenly, the dam burst and a flood of biblical proportion was sent upon the land, which swept down the hillside, carrying away everything in its wake. Immense trees were ripped out of the ground like matchsticks and a churning sea of evil roared down the hill toward the stand.
Fortunately, moonworts are blessed. The flood and the roots all careened to a grinding, tearing halt right in the middle in the little stand of ancient cedar trees, which fortunately, also remained standing where God put them, arranged so as to appear to casual mortal glances to be the reason the debris flow stopped at this spot. The great locomotive of mud was stopped. At the very toe of this pile of destruction, there sat the little moonworts, nicked and bruised, but waiting for the next chapter of the adventure, or …
NEXT EPISODE – THE COWS COME HOME
I will spare you the details of the next chapter. The saga continues, the characters enter the scene, and get old, and then depart, but the moonworts endure. Indeed, it is said that the meek shall inherit the earth. The only thing that changes are the supporting cast, played by mortals whose role is to wax poetically, feign importance, and occasionally put on a sincere, tragic face.