K’omoks estuary in bloom

From an email by Jocie Brooks to members of the Botany Group on May 26.


This week, I’d like to draw attention to our amazing estuary, which is full of fascinating plants, many of which are now in bloom. 

Estuary view with sedge-protection fencing (Photo: Gordon Olsen)

Experience the K’ómoks Estuary

We live right beside it, but we often forget about it in our pursuit of other places and interests. It becomes just a passing glance, a “pretty view” while driving the Dyke Road from Courtenay to Comox. To really experience it, one has to step out of the car. Last week I pulled over at the Rotary viewing stand, a place I haven’t stopped at for years. In minutes, you find yourself waist deep in sedges, smelling sweetgrass, listening to the piercing song of a warbler, and peering into a hot pink shooting star or a brilliant yellow buttercup. The place is wild and interesting, beautiful, historic, with an abundance and diversity of birds, plants, fish, insects and animals that could keep an expert busy for a lifetime. This special place, the K’ómoks estuary, deserves our full attention and appreciation. 

Why are estuaries important?

Estuaries, where rivers meet the sea, are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. In BC, only 3% of our shoreline is made up of estuaries, yet 80% of all wildlife either live in, or spend part of their lifecycle in estuaries. Rivers deposit rich, fertilized sediments, and tides carry oxygen and nutrients into the estuary and flush out its wastes. Estuaries encompass a variety of habitats. There are lush meadows of sedges, with swathes of pink, blue and red in the spring from the blooms of shooting star, camas and paintbrush. Salt marsh plants such as silverweed, seaside arrow-grass and maritime plantain thrive in a brackish mix of salt and fresh water. Exposed mudflats are colonized by small, tough plants like pickleweed and sea milk-wort, and at lower tide levels there are extensive “forests” of eelgrass. Huge amounts of carbon are stored in estuary sediments, making estuary conservation even more critical in the face of climate change.

A brief history 

First Nations peoples lived on the shores of the K’ómoks estuary for millennia, and the remnants of their fish weirs for harvesting salmon can still be seen in patterns of wooden pegs that protrude from the mudflats. Since the coming of the pioneers in the mid to late 19th century, the estuary has been profoundly altered and abused. Logging and coal mining had the biggest impact, with railway lines built right along the shoreline, and jetties built for dumping logs and transporting coal. The courses of our rivers were altered, and no longer fanned out into the estuary as they had done. A sewage lagoon was made (where the airpark is now) and old cars and refuse were dumped for fill (old Field Sawmill site). Much of the shoreline has been lost to housing developments. Sadly, we will never really know what the estuary was like in its pristine state, but despite all of the changes it is remarkable just how much diversity still exists. 

Protection and restoration

Many local organizations work to protect and preserve our estuary. K’ómoks First Nation patrols the estuary with their Guardian program, and are involved in restoration by planting native sedges and erecting fencing to keep Canada Geese from grazing.

Project Watershed is also at the forefront of efforts to protect, restore and educate the public about the estuary. Project Watershed, KFN, the City of Courtenay, and many other organizations are working to “unpave paradise” by re-wilding the old Field Sawmill site (Kus-Kus-Sum) by the 17th Street bridge. Native plants will be restored, and side channels created for salmon habitat. 

 Comox Valley Nature has a long history of removing invasive plants from the estuary and planting native vegetation. The Comox Valley Land Trust is involved in efforts to protect the estuary’s watershed. Many more groups care for the rivers and streams that feed into the estuary.

What you can do

Go out and experience what’s right here before us, our amazing estuary, and do what you can to support the many organizations that work tirelessly to protect it!

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Featured plant: Tiny veronicas (speedwells)

From an email by Jocie Brooks to members of the Botany Group on May 18.


Backyard micro-botany

Staying closer to home this spring, I am noticing just how many plants, wanted and unwanted, are in my backyard. This year, I have three tiny species of Veronica (speedwell) blooming in my small, urban lot. Though diminutive, their purple-blue flowers have a certain charm. Due to their micro size, they are often overlooked, stepped on and mowed over. There’s a good chance that if you look for them, you will find one or more of these species in your backyard also. 

More about the genus Veronica

Flowers in the genus Veronica have 4 purple/blue petals, and usually only 2 stamens. Leaves are opposite each other on the stem. Veronicas typically grow in damp, muddy habitats.

The origin of the name Veronica may be a reference to St. Veronica, whose handkerchief had markings that resembled the flower. St.Veronica used the handkerchief to wipe the face of Christ as he carried the cross (the vera-iconica, meaning ‘true likeness’).

The common name “speedwell” comes from the parting words “God be with you” or “go on well,” referring to the healing powers of some species. The petals of Veronica fall off quickly after picking, which is also why it may be called “speedwell.” Another common name for veronicas is “brooklime,” an old English word meaning: “brook” – the stream-side muddy habitats where the plants are often found, and “to lime,” an old verb for trapping birds with sticky materials.

Veronica used to be in the figwort family, or Scrophulariaceae, but has recently been moved to the plantain family, or Plantaginaceae. 

There are some larger, native species of Veronica that will be coming into bloom in late spring and summer, so we might revisit this lovely genus later on!

Three common “backyard” veronicas

1. Thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia)

  • Has upright stems with multiple flowers, often whitish and streaked with dark blue.
  • It likes to grow in garden pots in my yard, but it is also found in a variety of habitats: moist places as well as disturbed sites. There are two varieties, one native (var. humifusa) and one introduced (var. serypllifolia) with subtle differences between them.

2. Slender speedwell (Veronica filiformis)

  • Introduced from Asia, this is one of the prettiest of small veronicas, typically growing mixed with lawn grass. The flowers are quite big and showy relative to the small size of the plant. The leaves are kidney-shaped with blunt teeth.

3. Wall speedwell (Veronica arvensis)

  • This tiny but aggressive Veronica has taken over whole sections of my lawn this spring, colonizing patches where the grass died from the drought last summer.
  • The leaves are hairy, and the tiny blue flowers are just a few millimetres across. You need a hand lens for this one!
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Weekend shoreline wonders

From an email by Randal Mindel to members of the Shoreline Group on May 13.


Last weekend saw the passing of a strong tide cycle that took the group out to lots of nearby beaches. Below are some photos and associated comments from observations made by group members.

We are now up to more than 290 species and 1220 observations in our iNaturalist project page. If for example you wanted to see all the nudibranchs our group has uncovered, you can search our project page and enter “nudibranchs” in the species field.

The next good tide cycle runs from May 22nd to 27th, so hopefully some of these observations will inspire you to get out for a walk in the open and uncrowded environments of our local shorelines.

Not from Russia, with nacre

Group member Ian managed to catch sight of the red-listed Haliotis kamtschatkana, the northern abalone up by Willow Point Reef in Campbell River. Despite what the specific epithet suggests, this species ranges over the northeastern Pacific Ocean. It was named after a colloquial seaway east of the Kamchatka Peninsula around the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where, at least in 1865, this spectacular marine gastropod flourished. Today, on account of its edibility and beautiful shell, with its characteristic perforations and deep, nacreous lining, it is overexploited and endangered through much of its range. Ian’s photos above show a live northern abalone creeping along bedrock in the low intertidal. This species is red-listed in British Columbia, meaning it is functionally at serious risk of extirpation.

The following is from the provincial government’s description of red-listed species:

Red: Includes any native species or subspecies that have, or are candidates for, Extirpated, Endangered, or Threatened status in British Columbia. Extirpated taxa no longer exist in the wild in British Columbia, but do occur elsewhere. Endangered taxa are facing imminent extirpation or extinction. Threatened taxa are likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed. Not all Red-listed taxa will necessarily become formally designated. Placing taxa on these lists flags them as being at risk and requiring investigation.”

All harvesting has been prohibited in the province since 1990. If you are interested in the conservation status, biology, traditional and commercial uses of this species, there is a fairly comprehensive COSEWIC report from 2009 available online here.

Mystery of the flaccid anenome

Group member Christine recently passed along a photo of a creature that has puzzled many of us in the shoreline group over time. I think Robin and Jennifer have commented on it and many of our outings include discussion of its enigmatic form. Metridium farcinatum, the giant plumose anenome is spectacular in water, where you can see its branched tentacles in a cauliflower-like mass that actively stings, paralyzes and consumes small creatures unfortunate enough to fall into its arms. Out of water, it looks completely deflated and defeated as it tries to retain water and avoid fatal dessication. Below you can see Christine’s observed specimen out of the water, with the tentacles retracted and the body tube just hanging at the mercy of gravity.

Another anenome that does this is Urticina, which has simple, unbranched tentacles. Adjacent to the first photo, you can see Metridium in its happy state, indiscriminately killing and eating everything that the current brings it. 

Our biggest intertidal flatworm

As Canadians, we are used to seeing a lot of the world’s biggest things. Usually, these show up in far-flung locations in range of the Trans-Canada or Yellowhead highways. Whether this is a giant hockey stick in Duncan or a giant nickel in Sudbury, they tend to draw people on novelty and a lack of competition. The same cannot be said for the giant flatworm. It lives right alongside giant sea cucumber and giant sea stars and giant sea urchins. How can it attract attention?

Kaburakia excelsa, about the size of a sand dollar, turned up on the underside of a sandstone slab recently. It is thought to feed on limpets (how?) as it walks slowly over its substrate using a dense array of tiny cilia. Unlike most marine worms, this flatworm does not have a fully developed digestive tract, so it passes food out through the same mouth that it takes it in with. You can see the entire tract in the second photo with a human hand for scale.

While this is large for the intertidal area in our region, it is certainly not the largest flatworm. You’ll be horrified to learn (or recall) that the honour goes to a species of tapeworm that is 90 ft long! That group of flatworms inhabits the intestinal tract of large mammals, including humans. They are considered parasites and have very detrimental effects on human health in many parts of the world. 

The savage sea star strikes again

Group member Mary M. sent along a picture that ties together themes from the last two email updates, wherein we considered the plainfin midshipman fish and the feeding habits of the purple sea star. I think the photo speaks for itself. We can add the midshipman to the list of unlikely items that the purple starfish eats. It should be noted that Pisaster ochraceus is considered a keystone species in our region. As a ravenous predator, it controls populations of prey species. This site from HHMI provides a visual demonstration of what happens to our intertidal flora and fauna absent the purple sea star. 

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Featured plant: Horsetail and scouring rush

This post is by Jocie Brooks, leader of the Botany Group, adapted from her email to members of the group on May 12.


General notes

Horsetail and scouring rush are distinctive plants, with bamboo-like jointed stems and a strange rough-to-touch texture. They are also ancient, living fossils that transport us back to prehistoric times when they flourished 300 million years ago in the swampy landscape of the Carboniferous period. Artists’ re-creations of that period often depict tree-sized horsetails, the Calamites, with dinosaurs roaming through them. These are fascinating plants, true survivors of the trials of time. 

Description

Horsetails are in the Phylum Sphenophyta, of which there is only one living Genus today, Equisetum, which means “horse bristle.” There are 15 species of horsetail in the world and they are among the oldest surviving vascular plants on earth. Horsetails grow from perennial rhizomes that can grow a metre deep. In the spring, annual shoots arise that are hollow, ribbed and jointed. Whorled branches fan out from the joints and inconspicuous leaves form a sheath with pointed teeth. The whole plant has a coarse texture due to the presence of silica dioxide. Scouring rush differs in that it has no branches, and the shoots are perennial. 

The three most common species in our area are:

  1. Giant horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) this is the largest horsetail in our area, common in wet places such as swamps, marshes, ditches and stream sides. It is not found east of the coast mountains. The species name telmateia means “of muddy water or swamps.”
  2. Common horsetail (Equisetum arvense)is a smaller species that is circumpolar. It grows in a variety of habitats, and can tolerate sun exposure and poor soils, often colonizing roadsides and disturbed places. It is notoriously hard to remove from the garden!
  3. Scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale) has no branches, and has darker, blue-green stems. All of the stems look alike and are evergreen.
Giant horsetail shoots

How do horsetails reproduce?

Many species of horsetail produce green vegetative shoots that are sterile, as well as ghostly, colourless fertile shoots with a cone-like structure, or strobilus at the tip. The strobilus is packed with small, plate-like sporangiophores that are ringed with spore-producing sporangia. A spring-like elater is coiled around each spore, and when conditions are right, the spores are shot into the air. Spores grow into the beginnings of a new plant, the gametophyte, which is either male or bisexual. Male gametophytes (like mosses and ferns) have sperm with flagella that require water to swim to female plants. The fertilized plant, now called the sporophyte begins to grow and eventually detaches from the gametophyte and develops to maturity. 

First Nations/Traditional use

Fertile shoots of horsetail were traditionally harvested by many coastal groups. The new spring shoots were eaten fresh or boiled after the tough outer fibers were removed. Saanich people thought the shoots were good for the blood. Squamish people used to drink water from the hollow stem segments of giant horsetail. 

Horsetail, especially the green shoots, can be extremely toxic to livestock and humans, causing weakness and trembling and in some cases coma and death. It is recommended that the green shoots are never eaten, and fertile shoots should only be consumed “in small quantities and with extreme caution.”

Scouring rush was used as an abrasive, a bit like sandpaper, for polishing a variety of wooden implements. In colonial times it was used as a pot-scrubber.

Fun facts

The tallest horsetail in the world is the Mexican giant horsetail (Equisetum myriochaetum) which grows in wet, fertile soils in Mexico and Central/South America and reaches heights of 15 feet. 

Horsetail is a very tough plant, that can tolerate disturbance and poor soils with metals and/or salinity. Its ability to form colonies and spread by deep rhizomes and tubers is also key to its success. After the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, horsetail was the first vascular plant to grow. 

Sources

Plants of Coastal BC (Pojar & MacKinnon), Illustrated Flora of British Columbia (Douglas, Meidinger & Pojar), Biology of Plants (Raven, Evert, Eichhorn), Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples (Nancy Turner), Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org)

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