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On the Trails: Small explorations

Posted: October 19, 2012 - 12:01am
This beautiful orange peel fungus was common on the way up toward Salmon Dam during a recent hike on the Salmon Creek Trail.  Photo by David Bergeson
Photo by David Bergeson
This beautiful orange peel fungus was common on the way up toward Salmon Dam during a recent hike on the Salmon Creek Trail.

One day a friend and I decided to hunt for sundews — those little insect-eating plants that live in our muskegs. But we didn’t want the ordinary, round-leafed ones; we wanted the long-leafed ones. Another friend had mentioned that they could be found at Eaglecrest, on the lower cross-country ski loop.

So we prowled around for what seemed like hours in one muskeg, looking everywhere we could think of: along the edge where the forest encroaches, in the middle that is open to the skies, near small ponds, on sphagnum moss, or among sedges.

No luck.

We found thousands upon thousands of the round-leafed sundews, but no long-leafed ones.

The next muskeg proved more productive. Again we started to check different types of sites. Not far into our search, we simultaneously said “aha!”

And there, in a nearly bare patch, with little other vegetation, were several long-leafs. So, we began to look for bare patches.

Eureka! That was the trick.

This species seems to like places where there’s little competition from other plants.

Thus, the two kinds of sundews seem to occupy different microhabitats within the muskegs. When we get a chance, we’ll try to test the pattern we observed by inspecting additional muskegs.

A stroll up toward Salmon Creek dam in the rain yielded a variety of fungi. The fungi that we see above-ground are the reproductive parts that produce spores for dispersal. The most spectacular one was a gaudy, clear orange, growing on top of the grassy berm next to the road. Checking various field guides, we figured out that this beautiful fungus is probably the so-called orange-peel fungus (a.k.a. orange cup fungus, or orange fairy cup). We found many of them, from single “peels” to large clumps. Because fungi grow from underground filaments that can extend in vast networks (sometimes covering many acres), we wondered if all of these specimens might actually represent a single individual that just happened to send up multiple spore-producing bodies all along the berm.

At the final approach to the dam, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. has created very nice new stairs that replace the old, dilapidated, slippery, rickety stairways. This dam has historical interest, being one of the few known constant-angle dams in the world. This design is perfectly suited to sites that are wider at the top than at the bottom. (For more see http://juneauempire.com/stories/053109/spo_445612617.shtml.)

Last summer, on Gold Ridge, I noticed a white-flowered monkshood plant. Normally, monkshood flowers are intensely purple, so this white one really stood out. Then I remembered seeing, up there, some monkshood flowers that were white with purple streaks on the flowers. Hybrids?

Variations in flower or fruit colors are not uncommon. We are all familiar with salmonberries that can be yellow-orange or red — both colors quite common. Lupine flowers are sometimes white instead of blue, baneberries are occasionally white instead of red and elderberries are very rarely orange instead of red. So there must be color mutations that arise with some frequency. But what determines how common they become? Do pollinators favor one flower color over another; do fruit-eaters have color preferences? Or, are colors merely by-blows of genes that control other characteristics altogether?

The answers often differ from species to species, and form endless research projects for willing students.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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