It’s spring season for the exciting sport of botany

A trillium was backlit by the evening sun on a ridge just above the Pacific Ocean this week. A sacred medicinal species that can live to a greater age than the trees surrounding them, local trillium started blooming a little early this year.

There was a particular willow-studded meadow along the Sweetwater River where columbines and Rocky Mountain irises rippled in the grass like delicate pastel asteroids zipping in a verdant emerald sky.

Family rock-hunting expeditions often paused there as my dad and uncle made certain it was safe to ford the snow-fed stream in lumbering four-wheel-drives. There was time to wander around picking wildflowers — ostensibly for mama, though truth be told, I just liked them.

Botany, zoology and geology were our family sports, so by age 6 I knew irises are less innocent than they appear. “Roots were ground by the Indians, mixed with animal bile, then put in the gall bladder and warmed near a fire for several days. Arrow points were dipped in this mixture, and it is reported by old Indians that many warriors only slightly wounded by such arrows died within 3 to 7 days,” my uncle’s 1963 Peterson field guide reminds me.

Poisonous or not, wildflowers pumping with life force before plucking always swiftly wither into pathetic victims, becoming limp corpses within minutes of being picked. As I would eventually learn about fashion models, they are best cherished in their native habitat. (Jim Harrison, a literary hero of mine who died last week, amusingly observed: “If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models, you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”)

Some wildflowers on Washington’s outer coast are running a few days behind last year. It’s been comparatively warm, but heavy overcast denied plants the ambitious head start they got during 2014-15’s bizarrely sunny winter. As official astronomical spring began March 20, some local rain gauges pushed above 6 feet for the “water year” that started Oct. 1 — 2 feet more than our recent normal. Any sensible wildflower can’t be blamed for feeling a little washed out and depressed.

Wake-robins, better known in these parts as trilliums, may be an exception. They’ve been in bloom on the forest floors for the past 10 days, while in 2014 they weren’t feeling very enthusiastic until almost mid-April.

They are crawling with little insects, possibly a species of pollen beetle, though I don’t know my bugs. Northwest plant gurus Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon note trilliums are mostly noted for a relationship with ants, which relish their seeds. After eating an oil-rich appendage on these seeds, ants carry them to rubbish piles, where new trilliums spring up. “This is a reasonably effective mechanism for seed dispersal, especially for plants of the dim, becalmed forest floor,” the experts write.

On March 24 in southern Oregon, Umpqua National Forest issued a plea for people to leave trilliums alone. Picking the flowers this early in the season means that the plant is stripped of its ability to make more energy to store in the root, the U.S. Forest Service said. The depleted root then lacks nutritional reserves necessary for next year’s showy bloom to appear.

“The interesting thing about trillium is they can grow to be very old,” said Umpqua National Forest botanist Richard Helliwell. “There are trillium in the Siskiyous that are greater than 80 years. In some cases, the trillium can be older than the trees surrounding the plant.”

Like many native plants, trilliums were much cherished by traditional healers. They contain a uterotonic, which induces labor and reduces postpartum hemorrhaging, giving rise to a folk-medicine name of birthroot. “King’s Medical Dispensatory” of 1898 (tinyurl.com/AmericanDispensatory) attributes many additional benefits to trillium roots, including treating “tumors, indolent or offensive ulcers, anthrax, buboes, stings of insects, and to restrain gangrene.” Good to know, I suppose, if you’re ever stranded in the wilderness.

I recommend the sport of botany — and all sciences — to everyone. Knowing a little about our incredible world will make your life far richer.

(Closing with a personal boast, my uncle Tom Bell who helped spark these interests in me and his many students, will this spring be presented an honorary doctorate from our alma mater, in company with similarly inspirational science writer John McPhee.)

— MSW

Matt Winters is editor and publisher of the Chinook Observer and Coast River Business Journal.

I recommend the sport of botany — and all sciences — to everyone. Knowing a little about our incredible world will make your life far richer.

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