Grapeferns

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

I expended a certain amount of energy one summer looking for grapeferns, also know as moonworts.  Most readers have never heard of moonworts and those who have, may have never seen a live one.  What an interesting group of plants.  They are vascular plants with special tissues to conduct fluids from root to shoot and back again.  They reproduce by spores produced in tiny round sporangia, a millimeter or less  in diameter, which, altogether, look like clusters of grapes.  Their generic nameBotrychium is from the Greek botrys, a bunch of grapes.

Oregon is home to a dozen different species.  Most of them are tiny and none of them common.  Most grow in rich, moist, organic soil in mountain meadows which adds to the pleasure of looking for them.  The Wallowa Mountains have the greatest concentration of grapefern species of any place on planet Earth.  David Wagner, curator of the University of Oregon herbarium and our local grapefern expert, found a Wallowa meadow with seven different grapefern species growing in it.

Want to look for grapeferns?  Here is what to do.  Anytime from late July till September drive to a high elevation meadow, like the damp meadow on the north or east side of Mount Ashland or Elk Wallow on the Galice Access Road to Agness. Walk around the meadow, head down, and look for dark rich soil that is not soaking wet.  Search first for the largest and most common Botrychium in Oregon, the leather-leaf grapefern. It grows in sun or shade from sea level to mountain meadows.  its single leaf divides into a vegetative portion with a thick, leathery evergreen leafy portion and a much different looking fertile part that bears the grape-like clusters of sporangia.  Once you find a leather-leaf grapefern, the fun begins.  You now get down on your hands and knees and comb carefully through surrounding vegetation looking for other, much smaller species. They are a sociable lot.  The leather-leaf grapefern can be a robust six to eight inches tall or taller.  The others?  A slender inch or two or less.  Our Mount Ashland meadow has two other species, the least moonwort, B. simplex, and B. crenulatum, the crenulate moonwort.  You find them with your nose at soil level.

One of my favorites is the pumice grapefern, though I have never seen it.  it is southern and central Oregon’s own, found nowhere else on earth.  For a hundred years it was known only from Llao Rock on the rim of Crater Lake.  In the past few years, diligent botanists discovered it growing in raw pumice soil in the Three Sisters area, near the Newberry Caldera, and in lodgepole pine south and east of there.

One Oregon species is the widely distributed, B. lunaria, or common moonwort.  In Europe its unusual appearance has led to many folktales.  In pastures it can undo shackles and locks on livestock and remove horses’ shoes if stepped upon, or change mercury into silver.  Not only that, fairy-sized people use the fairy-sized leaflets as fairy-sized saddles on fairy-sized horses.  Its key-like appearance led to the myth that it could unlock locks.

Dr. David Wagner’s 1991 Willamette Valley nature calendar featured original illustrations and some fabulous facts about Oregon’s dozen species.  If you are interested in a current calendar check with Dave Wagner at Box 30064, Eugene, Oregon 97403.

— Dr. Frank Lang  

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