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Spirit Mountain odyssey

The goblin fern has been elusive this summer on Spirit Mountain. The tiny little fern, which grows beneath the leaf litter in old-growth yellow birch forests like the one on Spirit Mountain, is pretty particular about its habitat. It likes lots o...

The goblin fern has been elusive this summer on Spirit Mountain. The tiny little fern, which grows beneath the leaf litter in old-growth yellow birch forests like the one on Spirit Mountain, is pretty particular about its habitat. It likes lots of moisture and plenty of room to siphon nutrients from the ground.
It also likes to stay around a while once it's rooted in, said Gary Walton, a botanist who recently led more than 80 volunteers over two weekends in a plant survey of the controversial area in the forest, where a golf course has been proposed.
The goblin fern, like many of the non-woody stemmed plants one can find growing on the forest floor, can be older than the trees around it, he said.
"Very few people realize that orchids and ferns can live for 50 or 100 years and more," he said. "The bracken fern, for example, can form colonies. It spreads underground by rhizomes. The individuals may be young, but that plant can be 400 years old."
Finding the goblin fern as well as a number of other plants that are species of concern in Minnesota has been challenging this summer, however. The hot, dry weather has forced many of the plants to shut down early to wait for a better year.
But the five volunteers who turned up at 7:30 a.m. that day for their chance to discover the fern or a number of other species that Walton was searching for in the woods didn't mind the dry, hot weather.
They came prepared, with hats and water bottles and long-sleeved shirts to ward off mosquitoes and other bugs.
They also were enthusiastic about the hunt.
"I'm interested in getting out into the space I've heard so much about," said Gina Temple, one of the volunteers. "I wanted to see it in this state."
"I'm concerned about our green spaces," said Gina Sacchetti, who was celebrating her 50th birthday by tromping through the woods, learning about plants.
"I felt truly honored to be able to be in that environment with people who were as enthused about plants as I was," she said later.
The day began with a short talk by Walton.
Most of the plants they were looking for were small and hidden in the leaf litter, he said, opening a rare plant identification book that he and UMD botanist Deborah Shubat had published recently to show the volunteers what the plants looked like.
Jack in the Pulpit, bloodroot and a variety of cohosh live in the same environment, he said. "So if you see those scattered around with no grasses or sedges, look for them," he said.
The technique was simple, but effective.
When the group reached the area assigned for the day, they spread out, sticks in hand.
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Using the sticks and a light touch, the volunteers gently moved the leaf litter around the top of the soil, peaking underneath to see what was growing there.
"We were uncovering this little microworld," Sacchetti said. "There's so much life and so much activity all around us. It was so cool."
It was also easy to do. The dry weather has discouraged breeding mosquitoes, and the morning was surprisingly bug free.
The volunteers were quiet as they went about their work, sometimes entirely disappearing from view.
When they found something of interest, they called out to Walton, who came over to take a look.
The botanist, who has been doing rare plant surveys for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Park Service as well as the departments of natural resources in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan for years, would hurry over to see what they had found.
Sometimes the find gave Walton a chance to educate an inexperienced eye.
"A lot of people were not aware of the Indian pipe plant or monotropa," he said. "That was a surprising discovery for a lot of people. They also began to realize that unless a plant had a flower on it, they didn't know what they were looking at. So they began to look at stages of a plant's growth."
One intriguing forest plant, the aralia, lives 25 or 30 years, he said, and the volunteers who discovered this plant learned how to tell its age by counting the leaf scars on the stem.
"They were surprised to hear that trees aren't the only plants that live a long time," he said.
Other times, a species of concern would show up. There are a number of these on Spirit Mountain, he said, and classifying them as endangered, threatened, rare or otherwise is complex. He said he prefers to talk about them as "listed" plants.
When one was found that was rare in these woods, Walton made sure that he marked the plant's location with a portable global position system locator he carried.
When the survey is completed, the information will be keyed into a database so that maps can be made and that particular plant can be checked in future years, he said.
Walton also plans to write up a report for the Izaak Walton League, which is the group that received the grant to conduct the rare plant search on Spirit Mountain.
For the volunteers who helped out, "it was an excellent learning experience," Sacchetti said. "It just makes people more proud of where they live and maybe look at nature in a different way."

Joan Farnam is the Budgeteer community page editor and can be reached at joan.farnam@duluth.com . or 723-1207.

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