by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
If you’ve ever thought of planting flowers to attract pollinators to your garden, milkweed should be on top of your list – plants in the genus Asclepias are known for attracting all kinds of insects, most notably the monarch butterfly. The common milkweed, A. syriaca, is estimated to provide food to over 450 different species of insects!  Asclepias is a member of the Apocynaceae family, also known as the dogbane family. While they may provide adequate food for pollinators, some taxa are poisonous to animals – the family gets its colloquial name from those taxa that were historically used as dog poison . The genus name, Asclepias, comes from the Greek god Asklepios the god of medicine. Milkweed has had a variety of uses in human culture over the years; medicine is just the beginning.
The flowers of Asclepias are morphologically distinct. They are clustered in heads called umbels, with 30-50 individual flowers in each. The image below shows a close up of several A. syriaca flowers and their characteristics. The petals (a) are reflexed downward toward the stem, and a petal-like shape is made by the corona, which is made up of five nectar-secreting hoods (b) and incurving horns (c). The floral corona helps to attract pollinators. Pollen is produced in the anther (d) and received by the stigmatic disc (e). In Asclepias, these structures are fused into a single structure called the gynostegium. Between two adjacent anthers forms the anther wings (f), which enclose a stigmatic chamber. Above this chamber is the pollinium gland (g), where pollen can be retrieved. All of the flower buds in an umbel will open within 2-3 days of each other, and fade in colour and begin to shrivel shortly after being pollinated . Not every flower will produce seeds, even if they have been pollinated – one stem may have 50 flowers but still only produce one or two seed pods.
Pollinators searching for nectar on the unstable flowers can get pollinia, a mass of pollen grains, stuck to the adhesive pads on their feet that help them climb. These pollen grains may be deposited on the stigmatic disc of another flower as the insect continues to forage . While they are visited by bumblebees, wasps, ants, and flies as well, milkweed is most commonly associated with the butterflies that are attracted to the sweet-smelling flowers. The iconic monarch butterfly relies on milkweed for its entire life cycle. The eggs are laid on the underside of milkweed leaves, which the caterpillars eat from when they hatch. The poisonous compounds in Asclepias, chemicals called cardiac glycosides, are actually used by the caterpillars as a defence mechanism against predators. Insects like the monarch caterpillar that are adapted to feeding on Asclepias plants store these compounds in their body instead of metabolizing them, which effectively makes them poisonous to those looking for a tasty grub to snack on . After metamorphosis, the monarch butterfly may eat the nectar from milkweed flowers in addition to many other species, but it will always return to milkweed to lay its eggs.
Although toxic in large quantities, the compounds in milkweed have given them traditional medicinal uses in human culture. A. syriaca, the common milkweed, was used by colonial settlers as an expectorant, an emetic, and a remedy for asthma. A related plant, A. tuberosa, has been used to induce perspiration and in the treatment of lung ailments. The milky latex produced by the plant, which can be seen oozing from the stem if one breaks off a leaf or flower, was investigated as a rubber precursor but was never profitable. The seed hair fibres were used as a wartime substitute for kapok to make life jackets . Although not profitable for humans, milkweed is still a very important plant for pollinators like the monarch butterfly.
Asclepias syriaca is native to North America and is commonly found invading fields and roadsides. This specimen was collected at QUBS in 1960 by the former curator, Roland Beschel. You can find A. syriaca in flower all around QUBS from July to early August!
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
Fans of alternative medicine are likely familiar with the mint family, the Lamiaceae. Many of these plants produce essential oils used to battle ailments or boost the immune system – for example, oil of oregano is a common herbal treatment for sore throats, and peppermint oil has a cooling effect that can alleviate sore muscles. Lamiaceae plants are also widely used to add flavour to dishes and drinks, such as sage and rosemary – both in the genus Salvia. Among the other curious properties of the plants in this genus, Salvia divinorium (sometimes known as sage of the diviners or simply Salvia) is psychoactive and is recreationally smoked, chewed or consumed as a tea to induce hallucinations.
There are a variety of chemical compounds responsible for the different properties of plants in the Lamiaceae family. Within the Nepetoidae subfamily, which contains many of the more familiar Lamiaceae plants, the phenolic compound rosmarinic acid is mainly responsible. It was named after the plant from which it was first isolated, Salvia rosmarinus, also known as rosemary. This acid has shown antiviral, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activities. It has also been reported to deter pests like the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta).(4) Plants containing rosmarinic acid are most used to treat inflammation – and advances in molecular genetics help to explain why they are effective. In basic terms, rosmarinic acid stops the production of compounds that initiate inflammatory responses when cells are under stress – for example, from a viral infection. The acid inhibits the genes that tell the cell to make inflammation-inducing compounds and thus eases the symptom.(2)
Unsurprisingly, the Lamiaceae have been used in traditional medicine around the world for generations. The common characteristics of this family may have helped early peoples to recognize that a variety of different species can be used for food and medicine – the resemblance between species is strong, especially as you move from the family to the subfamily or to the genus level. Plants in the mint family usually have simple leaves, and they are always oppositely arranged. The stems are usually four-angled, with the leaves at each node being rotated 90° so that the leaves grow in four directions away from the stem. The flowers, which can be hermaphrodite or functionally female (i.e. The male parts are sterile), usually have five lobes and two ‘lips’ – hence the synonym Labiatae which is sometimes used to describe this family. The plant itself often has dense glands and a strong aroma.(3) Using these characteristics, you can identify common plants in the mint family that may be growing around your neighbourhood!
Glechoma hederacea – Ground Ivy
A native to Europe, G. hederacea is a creeping herb that was brought over deliberately by settlers for medicinal use and food and it quickly invaded the North American lands. It is low to the ground and inconspicuous – it can be recognized by its oppositely arranged, kidney-shaped leaves with blunt teeth, and blue-violet flowers about ½ inches long. It flowers in late spring and early summer, and by this time of year has already set seed. The upper lip of the corolla has three lobes that appear to be three distinct petals; the lower lip has two lobes with spots that are usually purple but occasionally pink or white. It flowers early in spring, and by mid-summer has produced seeds. However, it spreads much more rapidly by producing clones than seed dispersal. It is also suspected to have allelopathic effects, which helps it outcompete other plants and rapidly take over an area.(1)
Glechoma hederacea is a member of the Nepetoideae subfamily, so the presence of rosmarinic acid and other chemical compounds makes it a good contender for medicinal use. It is an effective anti-inflammatory agent and as such has been used against catarrh, the excess buildup of mucus caused by inflammation of the body’s mucus membranes.
Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal
Named for its ubiquitous use in traditional medicine, the selfheal is a Holarctic species – native to the continents of the northern hemisphere. It is also a member of the Nepetoideae subfamily and contains rosmarinic acid as the major phenolic compound. It has been said to treat sore throats, fevers, and accelerate wound healing.(5) Prunella vulgaris has also been shown to have specific activity against herpes simplex virus (HSV). Chemical compounds produced by the plant are shown to be effective at reducing the viral load of cells infected with HSV and has the potential to be used as an antiviral treatment for cold sores.(6)
The leaves are lance-shaped and entire, arranged oppositely as is typical of the Lamiaceae. The flowers are violet or purple and found in short spikes. It flowers from late spring to fall and can be found along roadsides and in waste places throughout Kingston, ON right now!
Because of the widespread medicinal and culinary uses of plants in the Lamiaceae family, European colonists brought many of them around the world with them. In addition to intentional introductions, seeds and fragments of plants can hitchhike along with other biological materials brought by settlers. For example, Lamium amplexicaule, also known as common dead-nettle is one of many members of the Mint family that was introduced to North America from the Old World. This specimen was collected in Kingston by George Lawson in 1859. Lawson was appointed professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Queen’s University in 1858, where he set up a botanical laboratory. He was also a founding member the Botanical Society of Canada, established in 1860. His wife, Mrs. Lawson, was an amateur botanist, and inspired equal privileges for female members of the Society. He was an ambitious man and saw the Botanical Society as a means of encouraging botanical research beyond the British settlements in Canada.(7) Although he only stayed a few years at Queen’s before moving on to Dalhousie University, his legacy remains at Queen’s in the specimens that are kept within the Fowler Herbarium.
Hutchings, M. J., and E. A. C. Price. 1999. Glechoma hederacea L. (Nepta Glechoma Benth., N. hederacea (L.) Trev.). Journal of Ecology 87:347 – 364.
Kim, J., S. Song, I. Lee, Y. Kim, I. Yoo, I. Ryoo, and K. Bae. 2011. Anti-inflammatory activity of constituents from Glechoma hederacea var. longituba. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters 21:3484 – 3487.
Kokkini, S., R. Karousou, and E. Hanlidou. 2003. Herbs of the Labiatae. Pages 3082 – 3090 in L. Trugo, and P. M. Finglas, editors. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition). Academic Press.
Petersen, M., and M. S. J. Simmonds. 2003. Rosmarinic acid. Phytochemistry 62:347 – 364.
Psotoyá, J., M. Kolář, J. Soušek, Z. Švagera, J. Vičar, and J. Ulrichová. 2003. Biological activities of Prunella vulgaris. Phytotherapy Research 17:1082 – 1087.
Xu, H., S. H. S. Lee, S. F. Lee, R. L. White, and J. Blay. 1999. Isolation and characterization of an anti-HSV polysaccharide from Prunella vulgaris. Antiviral Research 44: 43 – 54.
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
The Asteraceae, also known as the aster, daisy, or sunflower family, is the second largest family of flowering plants – and it shows. All over Kingston this week, various Asteraceae species are showing off their unique flowers. The radial petals of Asteraceae heads play tricks on our eyes, making them appear as one big flower. In reality, these heads are made up of many, very small perfect ‘disk flowers’ surrounded by a ring of “ray flowers” (Image 1).
What appears to be petals are individual ray flowers, which sometimes have no reproductive parts.
A common pattern of Asteraceae flower heads is the rows of bracts below the ray flowers. Bracts are modified leaves that resemble sepals and that sit beneath the ray flowers (see Image 2). Perfect flowers would often have only one sepal per petal, but asters can have several layers of bracts. While this is not a foolproof test, this is one of the characteristics that can be used to identify aster flowers.
Check out the Asteraceae species that we found decorating Kingston’s green spaces this week!
Looking at the images above you might be wondering:
Are there ray flowers in pineapple weed?
Where are the discs flowers in chicory and dandelion?
Do all aster flowers have disc and ray flowers?
If you had questions like this, you are very observant! Not all the aster flowers have the same structure, so let us consider some of the kinds of composite flower you might encounter.
First, notice how the heads are configured in terms of disc and ray flowers. Usually, you will come across three basic flower-head types:
Heads composed of only ray flowers (also called ligulate flowers), as in dandelion, chicory (“a” and “c” in image above), endive, and wild lettuce.
Heads composed of only disc flowers (also called discoid), as those found in species of the genus Eupatorium, Ageratum, Cirsium (thistles) and Arctium burdock (“e” in image above, also see below).
Heads composed of both disc and ray flowers are called radiate flowers. They have disc flowers tightly packed together in the head’s “eye,” while enlarged ray flowers that function as petals radiating outward from the eye. Species in this group include sunflowers, Black-eyed Susans, chrysanthemums, dahlias. In some flowers of the genus Zinnia, the yellow, five-lobed disc flowers in the head’s center are clearly visible, surrounded by red ray flowers, which most people would incorrectly call “petals.”
We love aster flowers! We decided to change the format of our blog post this week to give you an overview of more than one or two species. Identifying species in the Asteraceae family could turn into a complicated puzzle, and for many botanists, this is what attracts them!
To help us learn the different common species you might observe around Kingston or QUBS, without making it overwhelming, it is important to put them into larger botanical categories. These categories are called subfamilies. The species we have observed over these last weeks, and the ones we are describing in this week’s blog post, fall into three subfamilies: Chicorioideae, Carduoideae and Asteriodeae. Learning the characteristics associated with larger categories (in this case subfamilies) will help you to recognize species out in the field by association – so let’s delve right into it.
Commonly known as the chicory subfamily, these plants have no disk flowers, only ray flowers. The rays may overlap all the way to the centre of the flower head. The stems contain a milky juice, which gives them a bitter taste. They are edible and used in folk medicine as a digestive aid, among other uses. All three of the species highlighted here are introduced from Europe. Common species in this family around QUBS land base are: Pilosella aurantiaca (syn = Hieracium aurantiacum) and Pilosella caespitosa (syn = Hieracium caespitosum). These plants are commonly known as Hawkweed.
a. Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion)
This abundant weed is familiar to most – the ‘blowballs’ formed by the ripe seeds were bringers of wishes in childhood. The bright yellow flowers, 1-2” wide, crop up from spring until fall on hollow stems. The irregularly lobed leaves are attached at the base. The roots, when roasted, are said to make a flavourful coffee substitute.
b. Tragopogon pratensis (yellow goat’s beard)
The flowers of goat’s beard may resemble dandelion heads on a tall stalk, up to 3 feet high. However, they are only open in the early morning light, hence the alternate common name for this species: Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. The leaves are grass-like, alternate, and clasp the stem. The leaves are edible, it is slightly bitter, as is the root. The plant is biennial – it takes two years to complete its life cycle, and it turns woody in the second year. The genus name comes from the Greek word tragos. “goat,” and pogon “beard.”
c. Cichorium intybus (chicory)
Part of the endive genus, the chicory plant sports light bluish-purple flowers along its branches. Petals are toothed at the end. The entire plant can reach up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall. The leaves are edible, and some species of Cichorium are cultivated for salad greens. Blanching the leaves can reduce their bitter taste. Cichorium is the latinized Arabic name for chicory. The species name intybus comes from the Egiptian word tybi, “January” which is the month in which chicory is traditionally harvested. Common chicory species widely used for food includes the radicchio, puntarelle, and Belgian endive.
Also known as the thistle or artichoke family. Most of the plants in this group will have some prickly parts, usually the leaves. These are characterized by sharp prickles on their edges, which protects them from herbivores. The plants in this subfamily have their flowerheads protected inside a tight wrapping of bracts, like an artichoke, which by the way belong to the genus Cynara. Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) is also a member of this subfamily.
d. Centaurea jacea (brown knapweed)
The brown knapweed is a common ornamental garden species, because its purple, funnel-shaped ray flowers are particularly eye-catching. There are several rows of brownish bracts, which distinguishes it from the black knapweed (characterized by blackish bracts). The petals of the rays attract pollinators like bees, flies, and butterflies and direct them to the disk flowers in the centre. This species was also introduced from Europe.
e. Arctium minus (common burdock)
Common burdock is introduced across most of North America but this species is native to Europe and Asia. This species is commonly found in many places in Kingston: backyards, parks, waste grounds, rail-way grades and roadside. The taproots and young shoots are edible. The taproots are widely used in herbal medicine and are considered by some to be effective against skin conditions, infections, and in removing heavy metals from the body. The genus Arctium comes from the Greek word arktos, “bear,” a possible reference to the rough-textured bracts. The species name minus means “smaller.”
This subfamily is further divided into several tribes (more useful for ID purposes compared to tribes in other subfamilies), one being the Anthemideae (Chamomile) tribe. The plants in this tribe are odorous, and many have been used in traditional medicine (like chamomile tea, a well-known herbal sleep remedy). Another characteristic of this tribe is the bracts, which are thin, dry, and translucent.
f. Matricaria discoidea (pineappleweed)
This wildflower, at first glance, does not look much like its chamomile cousins. It grows low to the ground, with the typical yellow disk flowers in heads but lacking rays. In fact, the species name discoidea, means “without rays, disc-like”. Pineapple weed gets its name from the citrusy smell it gives off when crushed. The fresh plant is edible and makes a nice mild tea that has been used to treat stomach pains, colds, and fevers. This species is native to North America!
g. Achillea millefolium (common yarrow)
It is said that the warrior Achilles used a poultice of yarrow to stop bleeding during battle, which may be where the Achillea genus got its name. It is an astringent, as well as a diuretic and diaphoretic. Yarrow is a North American native, recognizable by small clustered flower heads each with 4-6 rays and several disk flowers in the centre. The petals can be white or pink. The leaves have a lance-shaped outline but are divided into many fine segments.
h. Tripleurospermum inodorum (scentless chamomile)
Chamomiles have daisy-like flowers, with white rays and yellow disks. The leaves are finely divided and may be scentless (as in T. inodorum), or strongly scented. It was previously placed in the Matricaria genus with pineapple weed. Despite its name, this species is not one of the commonly used varieties for making chamomile tea.
i. Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy)
The oxeye daisy bears strong resemblance to the chamomiles; long-stalked white flower heads and yellow disks. They can be differentiated by the leaves, which are slender and toothed as opposed to the finely divided leaves of chamomiles. They also usually bear a single flower head per stalk, whereas chamomiles may have several branches. It is considered an invasive species in parts of North America where it has been introduced.
Also, within the Asteriodeae subfamily is the Astereae tribe, which contains one of our native common North American asters.
j. Erigeron annuus (daisy fleabane)
This daisy-like wildflower is characterized by many rays – usually more than 40. These rays can be white or pinkish. The leaves are distinctively toothed, and the stem is hairy. Daisy fleabane is a pioneer species, which means it is one of the first plants to colonize a new or recently disturbed area. The genus name Erigeron comes from the Greek words eri, “early,” and geron, “old man” a reference to some species flowering and setting fruit early in the growing season.
Asteraceae in the Fowler herbarium.
We have not fully digitized all the cabinets that contain the specimens of this family, however with the incredible work of volunteers Donna and John Greenhorn, undergraduate students Elizabeth Garland (Honours thesis at Dr. Lonnie Aarssen lab 2018), Mahsa Aghaeeaval (SWEP 2019) and Amelie Mahrt-Smith (SWEP 2020), and all the amazing Queen’s volunteers that helped transcribed specimen labels, the database has 374 specimens from more than 30 species. Specimens from Tragopogon, Cirsium, Erigeron, Arctium, Centaurea, Carduus, Grindelia, Bidens, Sonchus, Erechtites and more represent some of the diversity of Asteraceae specimens fully digitized in our collection. Some of the oldest specimens from this family are of Tragopogon pratensis (yellow goat’s beard). We have specimens collected in Kingston since 1831, as part of the original collection of James Fowler. The herbarium also houses specimens across a broad range of localities – Asteraceae species have been collected in eight of the Canadian provinces and five American states. Specimens of bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare, have been donated to the herbarium from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Alberta! The one below was collected by Queen’s student Annie Boyd in 1897. You will likely see these prickly plants in flower later this summer. Check out the beautifully prepared Erigeron annuus specimen collected in the former Pittsburgh Township, now amalgamated into the city of Kingston (as of January 1, 1998) by Assistant Curator A.E. Garwood. He was a self-taught botanist and naturalist, accountant by profession, and a key member and one of the most prolific contributors of the Fowler herbarium during the 90’s. He worked closely with curators Ronald Beschel and Adele Crowder, and other important collectors such as, C.H. Zavitz, S. VanderKloet, R. Hainault, Good M., and Ian Macdonald. Look at the T. pratensis specimen collected by Ian Macdonald and note the differences on the amount and quality of information included on the labels. What do you observe? Can you draw any conclusions regarding the collection methods, the mounting of specimens and the value of data?
Elpel, T.J. 2004. Botany in a Day: The patterns method of plant identification. An herbal field guide to plant families of North America. HOPS Press, LLC, 6th edition. Pp 163-174.
Dickinson R. and Royer F. 2014. Plants of Southern Ontario: trees, shrubs wildflowers, grasses, ferns, and aquatic plants. Lone Pine Publishing. Pp 370 – 409 year
Niering W and N. Olmstead. 2001. National Audubon Society. Field Guide to Wildflowers. Eastern Region. Revised by Thieret W. John. Chanticleer Press, Inc.
Peterson Lee. Field guide to edible wild plants of eastern and central North America. Houghton Mifflin company, Boston NY.
Newcomb, L. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. New York.
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
The Ranunculaceae family is more commonly known as the buttercup family, which is reminiscent of some of the shiny yellow members of the Ranunculus genus. The buttercup family may be considered “simple” from an evolutionary standpoint, because the floral parts – the petals, sepals, stamens and pistils – are all distinct and not fused in any way. Moreover, reproductive parts are often of an indefinite number as compared to other plant families with predictable numbers of three, four, or five. Some flowers, such as in the columbine, delphinium and clematis have flowers that might look highly complex, but they are still considered “simple” because all the parts are independently attached. There is quite a bit of variation in this family in terms of the number of sepals (3-15), petals (0-23), and stamens; however, for identification, one common pattern to look for is the multiple pistils (3 to more) in the centre of the flower, each with its superior ovary (hypogynous). Some members of the Rose family also have multiple pistils, but they have a hypanthium, a cuplike structure from which the sepals, petals and stamens all arise (perigynous flowers). The leaves are also different in that the roses will often bear prominent stipules, a feature lacking in the Ranunculaceae (Elpel, 2004). For examples of these differences click | here |.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen several examples of species from this family in Kingston. This week we decided to give a turn to two species native to Canada: the red columbine and the Canada anemone.
Aquilegia canadensis (Canada columbine)
A garden favourite, this member of the Ranunculaceae family is native to North America! Aquilegia canadensis, also known as the red columbine, wild columbine, or Canada columbine in English, is probably more familiar as a colourful addition to a carefully tended garden than as a weed. Outside of the city, you may be able to find this short-lived, spring-flowering perennial plant on rocky outcrops, dry woods, slopes, ledges or open areas, but in urban areas like in Kingston, it has been mostly crowded out of untended space by more competitive invasive species like garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata; see our Blog post from June 9th, 2020). It has been suggested that the name Aquilegia is derived from the Latin word Aquila, meaning Eagle, possibly because of the flower’s spurs’ resemblance to an Eagle’s talon.
Columbine flowers are showy and unique, each petal having a long narrow spur at the back. The leaves grow in leaflets of 3 with deep lobes. The Canada columbine can be differentiated from similar columbine species like the European columbine (A. vulgaris) by its scarlet flowers with a yellow centre, and its stamens, which are long and protrude from the flower; the European columbine’s flowers are typically blue, purple, or white, and their stamens are not protruding (Newcomb 1977). Canada columbines can grow in a wide range of well-drained soil and can tolerate moderate shade. As well, this species is said to have good resistance to leaf miner beetles, which often cause damage to other species of columbines. For some tips on growing A. canadensis in your garden, as well as a shortlist of some other columbine species native to Canada, see | here |
The columbine flower produces nectar in its spurs, which attracts a variety of pollinators, including the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). It is also a food source for the rusty-patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, an endangered species of bumblebee native to Ontario whose numbers have declined due to several ecological factors, including habitat loss (Macior 1966). Although the rusty-patched bumblebee has not been seen in Ontario outside of the Pinery Provincial Park since 2002, there are many other native species of bumblebee that would appreciate some Canada columbines to snack on in your garden! This includes some threatened North American bumblebee species such as B. fervidus and B. pensylvanicus, as well as the hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe). Although it might seem logical to think that A. canadensis would reproduce primarily via outcrossing, genetic analysis using progeny arrays from populations across its range have shown that approximately 75% of its seed, on average, are the product of self-fertilization. Thus, Canada’s columbine has a mix-mating or selfing mating system, rather than outcrossing (Eckert and Herlihy 2004).
Queen’s Biology faculty member Dr Chris Eckert has investigated several aspects of A. canadensis life history, floral morphology, ecology and evolution; some of his research on A. canadensis conducted at the Queen’s University Biological Station can be found on the QUBS Research Projects website. In recent years, the genus Aquilegia has become a model system for the study of floral evolution and development because of its unusual floral morphology and the recent explosion in the number of species associated with pollinator shifts and other ecological factors. To take advantage of these features, a collaborative group has developed several genetic and genomic resources that have facilitated the study of the genetic basis of these morphological innovations (Kramer 2009).
Canada Anemone (Anemonstrum canadense)
The Canada anemone, or ‘windflower’, is an inconspicuous member of the Ranunculaceae family in flower this month. They are not quite as abundant in urban areas as some other introduced ranunculus species, such as the common or tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), the creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), or other common garden escapees, but you may still stumble across this low white flower in the Kingston area. The name ‘anemone’ is an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘daughter of the wind’. Ironically, this species prefers sites protected from wind since strong winds can bend or break the thin flower stalks.
This species was, until recently, part of the Anemone sensu lato (in the broad sense) genus and is often still called by its synonym Anemone canadensis. However, recent molecular phylogenetic analyses revealed that there were many more species and genera that needed to be included in the genus to satisfy the criterion of monophyly. Instead of renaming hundreds of species and including morphologically different genera such as Clematis (virgin’s-bower), Pulsatilla or Hepatica, the Anemone genus was regrouped into several genera, one of them being Anemonastrum, where Canada anemone is currently placed (Mosyakin 2016).
The leaves of the Canada anemone have 3-5 deep lobes and toothed edges, and they have long stalks that emerge from a clump at the base. The flowers are white with many yellow stamens in the centre bearing pollen that attract pollinators. The notable features of the flower are the white petal-like sepals, usually 5 per flower. Sepals are a division of the outer part of the flower called the calyx and are often green and resemble leaves; whereas petals are a division of the inner part of the flower called the corolla and are often showy and attract insects. In A. canadense there are only sepals (modified to look like petals) and the petals are absent.
The Canada anemone typically inhabits river margins, low moist meadows,and thickets. In nature, it can be found growing in massive colonies, and in cultivated areas is a common garden escapee. It is distributed throughout southern Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia and in the U.S from Maine to Montana south to West Virginia, Missouri, Kansas and scattered through the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico. It is a perennial that can grow in semi-shaded areas and makes a beautiful addition to gardens while also benefitting the ecosystem by supporting native pollinator communities! Keep an eye out for this wildflower throughout the summer months around Kingston, ON – it is more than just a weed.
Ethnobotanical and medicinal uses
A predominant property in the plants of the Buttercup family is an acrid protoanemonin glycoside oil. Most of the species are listed as poisonous, but most are safe to taste, as long as you spit it out! The buttercup taste is biting and acrid, and its strength varies between species. The acrid properties of the buttercups are unstable and are destroyed by drying or cooking, so the very mild buttercups are edible as salad greens or potherbs. Plants in the buttercup family have been studied for possible medicinal use since the 1900s. The chemical compound protoanemonin has irritant but also antibiotic properties. The Pawnee peoples of what is now Oklahoma used A. canadensis to treat headaches, and closely related species had medicinal uses ranging from topical wound care to reviving unconscious people (Turner 1984). A. canadense was used by many Indigenous peoples in medicine. Traditional knowledge about the plant’s properties and how to prepare them for medicinal use is paramount – one risks further discomfort and injury from improper use of traditional medicine. The Ojibwe, an Anishnaabe peoples who have inhabited the Great Lakes region for thousands of years, used A. canadense and other closely related species of Ranunculaceae as a poultice or wash to treat superficial wounds, as a remedy for colds and headaches, and for the revival of unconscious people (Turner 1984).
Using herbarium specimens to understand phenology
As the negative impacts of human activities on ecosystems become deniable, and more pressing to attend than ever, researchers need biological data spanning hundreds of years to understand how anthropogenic drivers affect biodiversity and natural resources. Changes in the timing of key life-history events, such as reproduction (flowering and fruiting) are among the most obvious and well-documented species responses to climatic change, especially for plants. In recent years, the scientific community has started to turn their attention to hundreds of millions of plants, fungal and animal specimens deposited in natural history museums as a potential source of these data. The increasing number of museum specimens becoming available online combined with newly developed web-enabled crowdsourcing platforms (i.e. CrowdCurio) and protocols for scoring and analyzing phenological data provide unparalleled access to ecological and evolutionary data spanning decades and sometimes centuries. Park et al. (2019) capitalized on the snapshots of phenology (i.e. flowering and fruiting) that herbarium specimens offer to increase the spatial, temporal and taxonomic diversity of phenological studies. They used 7,722 herbarium specimens from 30 flowering plant species with varying life-history traits, growth forms, native status and general reproductive seasonality (e.g. early- versus late-spring flowering), spanning 120 years and modelling to understand how phenology changes in response to climate change. Their study included the red columbine and Canada anemone!
Their results showed that early-flowering species flowered and fruited earlier in response to warmer spring temperatures and that the magnitude of these responses varies significantly between and within species across their latitudinal ranges. They also found that fruiting in populations from warmer, lower latitudes are significantly more phenologically sensitive to temperature than that for populations from colder, higher-latitude regions.
By bringing you these bits of information from the scientific literature we want to raise awareness of these unparalleled resources. Herbaria and natural history museums are under constant threat owing to budget cuts and other institutional pressures. Like the study by Parker et al. (2019), more publications out there are shedding light on the unique discoveries that are possible using museums specimens, and thus, pointing to the singular value of natural history collections in a period of rapid change.
Eckert, C.G., Herlihy C.R. 2004. Using a cost-benefit approach to understand the evolution of self-fertilization in plants: the perplexing case of Aquilegia canadensis (Ranunculaceae). Plant Species Biology 19:159–173
Elpel, T. J. 2004. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. HOPS Press.
Kramer, E. M. 2009. Aquilegia: A new model for plant development, ecology, and evolution. Annual Review of Plant Biology 60: 261 – 277.
Macior, L.W. 1966. Foraging behavior of Bombus (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in relation to Aquilegia pollination. American Journal of Botany 53: 302 – 309.
Mosyakin, S.L. 2016. Nomenclatural notes on North American taxa of Anemonastrum and Pulsatilla (Ranunculaceae), with comments on the circumscription of Anemone and related genera. Phytoneuron 79: 1 – 12.
Newcomb, L. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. New York. pp. 228.
Park D. S., Breckheimer I., Williams A. C., Law E., Ellison A. M., Davis C. C. 2018 Herbarium specimens reveal substantial and unexpected variation in phenological sensitivity across the eastern United States. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 374: 20170394.
Turner, N.J. 1984. Counter-irritant and other medicinal uses of plants in Ranunculaceae by native peoples in British Columbia and neighbouring areas. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11: 181 – 201.
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
Clovers, medick, trefoil, lupines, vetches and beans are all members of the Fabaceae family, also known as the Pea family. These plants have a special trick that few other plants do – they can fix nitrogen, and thus help your garden grow!
By forming beneficial associations (called symbiosis) with some of the bacteria found in soil, legumes can obtain nitrogen much more easily than other plants. Root nodules containing the bacteria Rhizobium (collectively known as rhizobia) ‘fix’ free nitrogen for the plants, converting it into an easily usable form. And in return, the legumes then supply the bacteria with valuable carbon produced by photosynthesis. Nitrogen is one of three major nutrients that plants need to survive and thrive. The other two are phosphorus and potassium. When you buy a bag of fertilizer, you may notice three numbers (for example, 24-0-4); these numbers refer to the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. Plants usually get nitrogen through their roots directly from the soil, but by associating with ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacteria, which can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, legumes do not have to compete with grasses and other weeds for the nitrogen in the soil. Their deep roots store nitrogen, and when they die it becomes available to the surrounding plants. In this way, they help other plants grow by adding nutrients to the soil.
In this week’s post, we highlight some of the common species of Fabaceae growing in the streets in of Kingston, Ontario.
True Clovers – The Genus Trifolium (White and Red Clovers)
The pink and white flowers dotting lawns are a tell-tale sign that summer is on its way. These familiar weeds are just a few of the dozens of species in the genus Trifolium – “the true clovers”.
The white clovers (Trifolium repens L.) and red clovers (Trifolium pratense L.) are the most common around Kingston, but you can also find the more pinkish alsike clover (T. hybridum), which despite its scientific name it is not of hybrid origin. You can recognize clovers by their signature three-leaved pattern suggested by the genus name: Tri =three, folium=leaf. At first glance, they might just look like weeds, but there is a lot more going on just beneath the surface.
White and red clovers, like so many North American weeds, are native to Europe; in fact, the greatest diversity of species in the genus Trifolium occurs in the Mediterranean Basin (around Anatolia and Greece) where it presumably originated (Scoppola et al 2018). Two other important centres of species’ diversity are the west coast of North America, from British Columbia south to Baja California, and the alpine and subalpine highlands of central east Africa. Clovers can grow in a variety of habitats, including meadows and prairies, open woodlands, semi-deserts, mountains, alpine peaks and urban environments. However, no matter where they are, one of the most important factors determining their success is high solar radiation; few clover species tolerate shade (Ellison et al. 2006).
True clover species have some characteristics in common and can be distinguished from other similar genera because they have petals that remain on the plant after flowering; the other genera do not. Clovers also have straight pods (the structures where the seeds are contained) that rarely stick out of the calyx; the others all do stick out. In clovers, the compound leaves can have between 3 and 7 leaflets, whereas the others always have 3, and always have their flowers in variously shaped heads. The whole floral structure in clovers is adapted to insect pollination, requiring skills to push down the keel (the two lower petals forming a boat-like structure) exposing both the male (stamens) and the female parts (pistil) of the plant. In its struggle to get the nectar or the pollen, some of the pollen sticks to the insect; when it visits another flower on a new plant the pollen is transferred. In this way, cross-pollination and the mix of genetic material occurs. Some annual species, however, can set seed by self-pollination.
White clovers (T. repens), red clovers (T. pratense), and alsike clovers (T. hybridum) are all very similar except for the colour of their flowers. You can identify Trifolium species by their stalked leaflets in threes (or fours if you are lucky!). White clover leaflets are attached to a ‘creeping’ stem which runs along the ground and only grows to about 13 cm in height.
The flowers are white or pinkish and attached to a stalk and are composed of many small flowers clustered in a dense head. Red clovers, on the other hand, have upright stems that can reach up to 60 cm tall, and the signature three leaflets typically have a white V-shaped blotch. The magenta or purple flowers are similar in shape to the white clover, found in a dense head, but do not have a stalk (Newcomb 1977). The alsike clover looks like white clovers, but the flowers tend to be pink overall and the plant grows 35-75 cm high. This species does not have a white ‘V’ on the leaves.
Human uses and consumption
Because of their superior nitrogen content, clovers are a great source of ‘green manure’ – instead of using chemical fertilizers, mulch from clovers can provide your garden or crops with the nutrients they need! (Bruning and Rozema 2013). Because clovers are also high in nutrient content, these species were sown for livestock forage by colonists and have become extensively naturalized worldwide, colonizing lawns and roadsides ever since. All parts of the plant can be edible if properly prepared, and their sprouts make a tasty addition to salads, the flowers a naturally sweet tea, and the dried leaves are said to give a vanilla-like flavour to baked goods. However, caution should always be exercised when foraging – white clovers are known to produce chemicals called cyanogenic glucosides, which release the deadly toxin cyanide. While this makes white clovers dangerous for people to forage without proper knowledge of how to prepare them, it may also make them a useful pest-control agent (Bjarnholt 2008).
While herbarium specimens can provide much useful information about a plant’s history, colours often fade over time – especially in the petals – when dried. Many historical botanical collections also included beautiful illustrations of the plants pointing to important taxonomic useful traits and details such as the size and shape of the leaves, flowers, fruits, seed pods and seeds. Much like modern-day field guides, botanical illustrations can serve as a reference for identifying the species. For instance, in the illustration below shows an alsike clover, where the difference is most obvious in the colour of their flowers. You can also see more clearly than in the photos the individual flowers, the keel, the sepals, and the root.
Black Medic – Medicago lupulina
The black medic is an annual, biennial, or short-lived perennial species. The genus Medicago is also a genus of the Fabaceae family, and includes the common forage crop alfalfa, Medicago sativa. The common name ‘black medic’ is at first not an intuitive alias for Medicago lupulina. It is characterized by its small yellow flowers and leaflets in threes and is closely related to the true clovers (the Trifolium species). The name Medic is derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘Median’, which was the name given to alfalfa because it was believed to have been introduced from the region of Media (which is in modern-day Iran). Today, black medic can be found throughout the world and is a common weed of lawns and waste places in Kingston, however, it is not considered to be of concern in managed agricultural systems and is not listed as a noxious weed in Canada (Weed Seeds Order, 1986).
Like the white and red clovers, black medic was introduced to North America during the era of colonization. It is used as fodder, especially for sheep, and it is commonly used for making honey. The bright yellow flowers attract honeybees, moths and butterflies, which help to pollinate the plant. As a member of the Fabaceae family (or the legumes) M. lupulina can also improve soil quality over time by fixing nitrogen through its helpful association with rhizobia (bacteria) instead of competing with other plants for nitrogen in the soil. It is less susceptible to the fungal disease ‘clover rot’ than the red clover, which makes it especially useful in agriculture (Turkington and Cavers, 1979). Chemicals produced by the black medic plant called saponins have shown antifungal properties, which has the potential for use in medicine against a broad spectrum of diseases (Zehavi and Polacheck, 1996).
Black medic bears a strong resemblance to the hop clover Trifolium dubium, which is also known as the lesser trefoil. They are similar in size, and both have small yellow flowers in a dense head, and three leaflets with a long stalk. In spring and early summer, they are especially difficult to distinguish from one another. The small, black, spirally coiled pods of the black medic fruit is the easiest way to distinguish it from similar-looking plants. Additionally, the leaves of the black medic tend to be hairier and are tipped with a small bristle. The stem is also hairy, whereas the hop clover’s stem is smooth, and the leaves have no bristle (Newcomb, 1977). Hereis a great chart for differentiating yellow clovers in the field! Have you found T. dubium? Share a photo with us and we will post it here!
Annie A. Boyd, one of the very few female botanists of the late 1800’s contributed this beautiful M. lupulina specimen collected in 1897 to the Fowler Herbarium. If you are in the Kingston area you can visit Lake Ontario Park, the site where she collected this specimen. You are likely to see black medic along the trails edge – you may even be looking at a distant relative of the individual that Boyd collected herself over 100 years ago!
Bjarnholt, N., M. Laegdsmand, H. C. B. Hansen, O. H. Jacobsen, and B. L. Møller. 2008. Leaching of cyanogenic glucosides and cyanide from white clover green manure. Chemosphere 72:897–904.
Bruning, B., and J. Rozema. 2013. Symbiotic nitrogen fixation in legumes: Perspectives for saline agriculture. Environmental and Experimental Botany 92:134–143.
Ellison, N. W., A. Liston, J. J. Steiner, W. M. Williams, and N. L. Taylor. 2006. Molecular phylogenetics of the clover genus (Trifolium-Leguminosae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 39:688–705.
Gillett, J.M., Taylor, N.L., 2001. The World of Clovers. Iowa State University
Press, Ames, Iowa, USA.
Newcomb, L. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. New York. pp. 36; pp. 58 – 60.
Turkington, R., and P.B. Cavers. 1979. The biology of Canadian weeds. 33. Medicago lupulina L. Can. J. Plant Sci. 59: 99 – 110.
Weed Seeds Order. 1986. Order determining the species of plants the seeds of which are deemed to be weed seeds. Seeds Act. S-8-SOR/86-836.
Zehavi, U., and I. Polacheck. 1996. Saponins as antimycotic agents: Glycosides of medicagenic acid. In: G.R. Waller, and K. Yamasaki, editors. Saponins Used in Traditional and Modern Medicine. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 404. Springer, Boston, MA.
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
Capsella bursa-pastoris may at first appear to be just another weed blending into the sea of fresh spring greenery. But take a closer look at this plant commonly known as Shepherd’s Purse, and you will notice the curious appendages from which it got its name. Its distinctive seed pods – small pouches in the shape of a heart – bear resemblance to an old-fashioned style of purse carried by shepherds in centuries past . This widespread edible weed is a part of the Mustard family, Brassicaceae. This family is shared by garlic mustard (see our previous post about it), thale cress, and many common supermarket vegetables like broccoli and kale. Of the five species in the Capsella genus, C. bursa-pastoris is the only one found in North America, which makes it easier to identify this species in your community.
Shepherd’s Purse is a cosmopolitan weed: it is found all over the world. Its secret weapon is its ability to grow in a wide variety of conditions. It can be found in disturbed ground or dumps, and frequently invades the cultivated soil in gardens and crops. It can grow in full sun or partial shade, dry or moist soils, and even cracks in concrete (Image 1); its hardiness makes it a good contender for urban living . You can identify Shepherd’s purse by its large leaves with irregular lobes at the base of the stem, and smaller, arrow-shaped leaves that clasp the stem. In good conditions, it can reach 60-80 cm tall. Its tiny white clustered flowers have four petals each (with the 6 distinctive stamens: 2 outer short and the 4 inner long). The most identifiable feature is the heart-shaped seed pods attached to the main stem by a long stalk, which makes it distinguishable from similar plants like wild mustard (Image 2) . Early in the spring, Shepherd’s Purse’s flowers begin to bloom, and they will continue to bloom until late fall. It is an annual, which means an individual plant only survives for one year, but several generations can be produced during the warmer months, and a single plant can produce up to 45,000 seeds! This is a high level of production that is facilitated, in part, by their ability to self-pollinate. Instead of waiting for an insect to come by and transfer pollen from one individual to another, the pollen simply fertilizes the flower from which it was produced (or a close neighbouring flower) .
C. bursa-pastoris was introduced to North America by European settlers many times over. In the southwestern United States, it hitched a ride with Spanish colonizers, while further north in the U.S. and Canada, we have the British and French colonists to blame . Shepherd’s Purse was once an important European medicinal herb, especially for women. Like many plants, has been overtaken by more effective modern drugs. All its parts are edible and can be used as a peppery seasoning – although we do not recommend you try this with unfamiliar plants! The leaves, which are high in vitamins and minerals, were traditionally made into a tea for the relief of pre-menstrual cramps and to reduce the risk of haemorrhaging after childbirth [1,2]. The Fowler Herbarium at the Queen’s University Biological Station has C. bursa-pastoris specimens collected in Kingston during the 1800s. This beautifully preserved Shepherd’s Purse specimen was collected in 1862 in the former township of Ramsay, Lanark County, which lies between modern-day Kingston and Ottawa. Notice the defining features of C. burasa-pastoris: the larger basal leaves, small stem leaves, heart-shaped seed pods, and clusters of tiny flowers at the tip (no longer white, but you get the idea.
Aksoy, A., Dixon, J.M. and Hale, W.H. 1998. Biological flora of the British Isles. Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medikus (Thlaspi bursapastoris L., Bursa bursa-pastoris (L.) Shull, Bursa pastoris (L.) Weber). Journal of Ecology 86, 171-186.
Ghalandari, S., Kariman, N., Sheikhan, Z., Mojab, F., Mirzaei, M., and Shahrahmani, H. 2017. Effect of hydroalcoholic extract of Capsella bursa pastoris on early postpartum hemorrhage: A clinical trial study. J Altern Complement Med 23, 794‐799. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0095
Grieve, M. 1984. A Modern Herbal. Penguin. New York. ISBN 0-14-046-440-9
Newcomb, L. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (pp. 150). Little, Brown and Company. New York.
6. Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain. Reader’s Digest. 1981. p. 54. ISBN 9780276002175.
Neuffer, B., and Hurka, H. 1999. Colonization history and introduction dynamics of Capsella bursa-pastoris (Brassicaceae) in North America: isozymes and quantitative traits. Molecular Ecology 8, 1667-1681.
by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith
Next time you are out for a walk around the neighbourhood, keep your eyes out for this weed in lawns, empty lots, and along trails. Alliaria petiolata, commonly known as garlic mustard, is in bloom through spring and early summer in Ontario. This widely distributed herb is a member of the Brassicaceae (Mustard) family alongside many well-known, if not well-liked cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, turnip, horseradish, and wasabi, to name a few . Garlic mustard gets its name from the garlic smell released by the leaves when crushed; the leaves, as well as the flowers and seeds, are edible and add a mild garlic or mustard flavour to dishes. Make sure to you ask your neighbours if they have used herbicides on their lawn before you try adding garlic mustard leaves to your salad or pesto!
Mature garlic mustard plants are easy to identify. The heart-shaped leaves have saw-toothed edges, prominent veins, and long stalks connecting them to the main stem. Leaves are unpaired and alternate in their position on the stem. Its height varies, but in rich soil can reach up to 1 metre tall. The flowers are somewhat inconspicuous: small and white, each with four sepals and petals (both free), and clustered at the tips. As it is typical of the mustard family, the flowers have six stamens (male part) with the two outer stamens shorter than the four inner stamens. These flowers only develop in the plant’s second (and final) year of life (Images 1 and 2). In its first year of growth, the leaves are more rounded and can look like some other common Ontario herbs like violets or wild ginger . Your other senses will come in handy here – you can tell young garlic mustard apart from the rest because its leaves will still have the distinctive garlic smell when crushed.
Despite its abundance in North America today, garlic mustard did not exist here until around the 1800s, when it was purportedly introduced by European settlers who cultivated it for food and medicine. It is a good source of vitamin A and C and was used as an antiseptic to treat ulcers and relieve itching caused by insect bites and stings , so it makes sense they would have wanted this useful plant with them in this strange new world. However, since its introduction to North America, A. petiolata has spread vigorously and crowded out some of the native flora, preferentially invading areas of moist soils and shade. Dr. Rob Colautt i of the Queen’s University Biology Department has been investigating the effects of this species on the soil microbial communities as a possible explanation for its rapid invasion [https://www.ecoevogeno.org/research.html]. His research has found that A. petiola does alter some nutrient-cycling bacteria in the soil . We are excited to see the results of his ongoing work!
Herbarium specimens can tell us much about the history of garlic mustard. This specimen from the Fowler Herbarium (Image 3) was collected in Sweden in 1886; back then, the scientific name for this plant was Sisymbrium alliaria (now a taxonomic synonym). As more species and molecular tools are used in taxonomic studies, the names of species sometimes change. Taxonomy is constantly being revised and families, genera and species are continually being re-assigned as a result. Herbaria must be periodically updated with the most recent information – here, we can see that the genus and species was revised by Assistant Curator A.E, Garwood in 1980, and again in 1990 to what is currently the accepted name of the species: Alliaria petiolata (M. Bieberstein) Cavara & Grande. Our efforts to digitize the specimens housed by the Fowler Herbarium have also given us a chance to revise any outdated information in the collection.
Grieve, M. 1984. A Modern Herbal. Penguin. New York. ISBN 0-14-046-440-9
Koch, M., Al-Shehbaz, I.A., and Mummenhoff, K. 2003. Molecular systematics, evolution, and population biology in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 90, 151 – 171.
Lavoie, K., Antunes, P.M., and Colautti, R.I. Effects of Alliaria petiolata invasion on soil microbial community structure inferred from bacterial 16S and fungal ITS metabarcodes. (in prep.)
Newcomb, L. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. New York. pp. 138.
The Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) harbours a treasure that few people know of – The Fowler Herbarium. This is where I spent much of my time during Summer 2019 as the “Data Management and Herbarium Assistant”, a position supported by Queen’s University via their Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP). The Fowler Herbarium is a natural history collection containing approximately 140,000 plant specimens from all over the world, including non-vascular plants, (mosses, liverworts, hornworts and algae), vascular plants (ferns, conifers, angiosperms), lichens, and some fungi. The primary goal of the herbarium is to document and archive plant diversity, particularly from Eastern Ontario, provide access to specimens for scientific study, and make relevant data available to researchers and others who are interested (e.g. artists, writers).
People can visit the collection at QUBS in person by contacting our Collections Manager, Adriana Lopez-Villalobos. However, as we wish to make these herbarium specimens discoverable and more accessible to a broader audience, we are digitizing the entire collection. The project involves 5 stages: 1) creating an initial database, updating nomenclature, and repairing and barcoding our plant specimens, 2) high-resolution imaging, 3) transcribing data from labels, 4) data cleaning and mapping onto Darwin Core terms (a standardized lexicon for specimens), and finally, 5) sharing these data with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF – https://www.gbif.org) via our local node, the Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility (CBIF) and the Canadensys Network (https://www.canadensys.net). By digitizing and sharing our plant specimens online, QUBS not only allows more people to discover and use specimens, but also prevents fragile specimens from further damage due to repeated handling.
Data portals like GBIF gather information from museums and institutions from all over the world, and allow anyone with a computer and internet access to explore and use years of data collected on almost every known species and ecosystem on the planet. Our hope is that sharing the data from the Fowler herbarium via GBIF will foster new collaborations and research projects, and lead to the discovery of new patterns in the plant diversity around QUBS and beyond.
Here is something to contemplate. The Fowler Herbarium has specimens from as early as 1819. This means that we have two centuries worth of plant diversity and distributional data! Having historical specimens allows us to explore the diversity that was present in decades past; for species that have become locally extinct in some areas, a herbarium specimen might represent the only record of that plant’s original distribution. In some cases, a single herbarium collection might only have one or a few plant specimens from a given species and this might not be particularly useful for scientific study, but combined with data from other herbaria around the world could produce a database of hundreds or thousands of records. These data could potentially translate into snapshots of a species past distribution but also allow us to predict its future prospects.
The possibilities for addressing ecological, evolutionary and social problems are vast! Just to mention some examples. GBIF data have been used to evaluate changes in wildlife populations (Callcutt et al. 2018), to understand colonization dynamics of invasive species (Park & Potter 2015; Dellinger et al. 2016), to develop novel models to track insect migrations using pollen metabarcoding (Suchan et al. 2018), and to protect species at risk (Meza-Parral & Pineda 2015; Clavero & Hermoso 2015). They have also been used to inform estimates of the risk of vector-borne disease outbreaks (González-Salazar 2017; Deka & Morshed 2018) and to quantify the allergy risk under future climates, as potent aero-allergens species, such as ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) expand their ranges (Rasmussen et al. 2018). We are just starting to explore the uses of data form natural history collections. This is reflected in a statement from Professor Pamela Soltis (University of Florida)
As the number of digitized natural history specimen records continues to increase, it’s important to see how the data have been used so that we can build on those results and develop new uses for the future
QUBS provides many opportunities for students to gain experience in many fields of research. Aside from ecological or evolutionary studies, for me, assisting in the Fowler Herbarium and working at QUBS during the summer of 2019 allowed me to gain valuable experience in research data management best practices, data manipulation and database management. These skills will be incredible assets in my field of interest, bioinformatics. The Data and Collections Manager, Adriana Lopez, certainly spares no effort in creating and expanding a digital database for the Fowler Herbarium and we hope that even more data will be available soon for people around the world.
Callcutt K., Croft S., and Smith G.C. 2018. Predicting population trends using citizen science data: do subsampling methods produce reliable estimates for mammals? European Journal of Wildlife Research, 64:28.
Clavero, M. and Hermoso, V. 2015. Historical data to plan the recovery of the European eel. Journal of Applied Ecology, 52: 960-968.
Deka, M.A., Morshed, N. 2018. Mapping Disease Transmission Risk of Nipah Virus in South and Southeast Asia. Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease, 3:57.
Dellinger, A. S., Essl, F., Hojsgaard, D., Kirchheimer, B., Klatt, S., Dawson, W., Pergl, J., Pyšek, P., van, Kleunen, M., Weber, E., Winter, M., Hörandl, E. and Dullinger, S. 2016. Niche dynamics of alien species do not differ among sexual and apomictic flowering plants. New Phytologist, 209: 1313-1323.
González-Salazar, C., Stephens, C.R., and Sánchez-Cordero, V. 2017. Predicting the Potential Role of Non-human Hosts in Zika Virus Maintenance. EcoHealth, 14:171-177.
Meza-Parral Y, Pineda E. 2015. Amphibian Diversity and Threatened Species in a Severely Transformed Neotropical Region in Mexico. PLOS ONE, 10(3): e0121652.
Park, D. S. and Potter, D. 2015. Why close relatives make bad neighbours: phylogenetic conservatism in niche preferences and dispersal disproves Darwin’s naturalization hypothesis in the thistle tribe. Molecular Ecology, 24: 3181-3193.
Rasmussen K., Thyrring J., Muscarella R., and Borchsenius F. 2017. Climate-change-induced range shifts of three allergenic ragweeds (Ambrosia L.) in Europe and their potential impact on human health. PeerJ, 5: e3104.
Suchan, T., Talavera, G., Sáez, L., Ronikier, M., and Vila, R. 2019. Pollen metabarcoding as a tool for tracking long‐distance insect migrations. Molecular Ecology Resources, 19: 149- 162.
People often say how important it is to get experience working in one’s field. I’m an environmental science major, and last summer I worked retail and at a restaurant, so not exactly what you’d call ‘relevant work experience’. This year I decided to start looking for jobs early. I asked one of my TAs at Queen’s for ideas on where to apply. She had several suggestions, one of them being SWEP: SWEP stands for Summer Work Experience Program. It is a program at Queen’s where Queen’s faculty and staff create job opportunities for undergraduate students to apply for (the process is competitive and adjudicated by a committee of professors who ensure that the jobs have a good learning plan and impart skills that will help students in future endeavors).
I had never heard of SWEP but I took a look, saw 22 jobs that seemed relevant to environmental science, and applied to all of them. Four of the 22 jobs were located at Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). I interviewed for three of them and ended up getting one entitled ‘Conservation Research Intern’. Now, my fourteen weeks at QUBS are coming to an end. Most of my time was spent working on the long-term Tree Swallow monitoring project that Raleigh Robertson started in 1975. It was an amazing experience. I’ve always loved wildlife, and I have a particular soft spot for birds, maybe because I’m named after one. I don’t think that I could have found a better summer job. Not only was the work itself very interesting (especially compared to folding shirts and taking ice cream order which is what I was doing last summer), but life outside of work at QUBS is incredible.
I’m from Toronto, and the highlights of my summers have always been going camping and going to the cottage. QUBS is a bit of both. It’s located on Lake Opinicon, about 50km North of Kingston. For someone who loves to swim, spending three months straight living on the lake was a dream come true. We were in the water our first week here (the first week of May) and have been in most days since. By ‘we’ I mean myself and the awesome people who were also lucky enough to get hired here. When we weren’t working, we spent our time swimming, canoeing, eating (a lot of) ice cream from the local restaurant, The Opinicon, playing cards and having movie nights. Every single one of us hit it off right off the bat. Being in an environment like this, surrounded by people with interests similar to my own was more rewarding than I could have imagined. When I was first offered this job, I was ridiculously excited, but also a bit sad that I wouldn’t have much time at home. I promised to go home at least once a month but I didn’t go home once. My family was a bit disappointed but when they came up for the QUBS Open House, they took one look around and understood immediately why I hadn’t wanted to miss a weekend at QUBS.
Arriving at QUBS:
This being my first field season, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I got to QUBS a full 24 hours before any of the four other SWEPs, which was very intimidating. I spent the day exploring the property and reading. Over the next day, the others arrived and began getting to know each other. There was Jen (or Jan, as we now call her), Grace (‘mom’), ‘snack-sized’ Maddy, and our American Girl Kathleen. Working for Paul Martin were Katie and Jacob, who sadly left after only eight weeks. Matt, a master’s student, became known as the ‘snake guy’. Later on, the ‘plant people’ Claire and Jamie would join our numbers to become part of the QUBS family. It didn’t take long for us all to bond.
Working with Tree Swallows
On my second day at QUBS, Fran Bonier and Amelia Cox took me into the field to show me how to monitor the Tree Swallow boxes. Tree Swallows are a migratory bird found in North America. They are part of a declining group of birds called aerial insectivores; birds that feed almost exclusively on insects in flight. Tree Swallow populations have been declining since the 1990s in North America, and we’re hoping to use the data we collect to figure out why.
In total, there are over 200 nest boxes, and every other day I would go out and record what was in each box. Some boxes were empty, and some already had finished nests. Tree Swallows make their nests out of grass, and then line them with feathers. After a few weeks, the Tree Swallows started laying eggs. At that point, Fran and Amelia went out with me again, this time to show me how to capture the adults in the nest boxes. Once we caught them, we would band them and take measurements such as tarsus length.
It’s best to catch the females while they’re incubating and the males once the eggs have hatched. Once the nestlings are 12 days old, we band and measure them as well.
In total we banded 550 birds this summer.
In addition to working with Tree Swallows, I also got the chance to do some work with ratsnakes.
Snakes are amazing animals to work with. Sometimes they’re a bit defensive when you first catch them, but they calm down a lot once they realize you aren’t going to hurt them.
All in all, it was the best summer I’ve ever had. Working at QUBS helped me realize that I want to do many more seasons of field work. I’m definitely going to miss QUBS and everyone I’ve worked with a lot.
The Queens University Biological Station (QUBS) strives to be one of the best field stations in North America. To enrich the resources available to researchers, QUBS recently sough to apply a new technology to improve the bathymetric maps of our local lakes. A continually evolving technology, the Hydroball® buoy was obtained for data collection at QUBS over a two week period in the summer of 2018 . The Hydroball system integrates three main components: a GNSS L1/L2 receiver, a miniature inertial motion sensor, and a single beam echosounder. The GNSS receiver measures the buoys real time position including latitude, longitude and ‘ellipsoidal height.’ The inertial sensor measures roll, pitch and heading while the echosounder measures the depth under the buoy using SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging) properties. The output data of these components is fed into a controller unit inside the buoy that allows up to ten soundings per second to be referenced to the seabed.
Now, you may be asking “What is a Hydroball?” At first glance it looks like something out of a Star Wars movie (BB8’s aquatic cousin?) – the Hydroball concept is actually quite simple. It is a small autonomous bathymetric buoy developed by CIDCO (The Interdisciplinary Centre for Development of Ocean Mapping; Figure 1). It is designed to map non-traditional areas such as rivers, remote locations and ultra-coastal zones. The robustness of the Hydroball instrument supports bathymetric data acquisition in turbulent waters, allowing hydrographers and companies (and field stations!) to map unknown areas with high precision and accuracy.
Bathymetry, the study of underwater topography, is fundamental to the studies of oceans, seas and lakes. Bathymetric data, including information about the depths and shapes of underwater terrain have a range of important uses. As of the year 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that as much as 95% of the world’s oceans and 99% of the ocean floor remained unexplored (NOAA, 2010). The rise of technology including remote sensing and bathymetrical devices such as the Hydroball have opened up opportunities for offshore exploration. By mapping and analyzing the floors of lakes and oceans, scientists can study circulation patterns, marine biology, geophysical properties and sites. In essence, bathymetric data provide valuable information about water depth and topography of lakes and oceans, which are significant for many aspects of marine research, administration, and spatial planning of coastal environments and their resources. Bathymetric maps are increasingly important as scientists learn more about the effects of climate change on our environment.
The data acquisition was completed during the period of of July 3rd to16th and from July 15th – 22nd thanks to the amazing team efforts of QUBS staff and members from Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab (QUBS Director). Many long hours were spent on the water collecting data (Figure 3), as well as in the GIS room ‘cleaning and processing’ the millions of points collected. On the boat, we used ‘Survey’ software to visualize our progress in covering the Lake Opinicon grid that we had created. A Sound Velocity Profiler (SVP) instrument was used to determine the speed sound tab which the boat was moving through the water as we were collecting data. The software, combined with the technology of the Hydroball proved to be a reliable and robust system which yielded high quality of data.
Once data collection was completed over the time that we had the instrument, the next step was to process and clean the data. A program called ‘Depthstar’ visualized our collected data on a navigation map platform (Figure 4). From here, we scanned through point clouds of data to remove (clean) obvious anomalies in the data set. Post collection cleaning included adding Precise Point Processing (PPP) data to the raw data to georeference the points, and improving the accuracy and reliability of the data. The processed skeletal data was moved into Arc software to create the Digital Terrain Models (DEM). This process required a lot of patience (and coffee) as we collected over 6 million points over the 14 days of data collection!
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this project is the importance of quality data for an effective research data management plan. For data to be maximally relevant, it must be current and up to date. With such contemporary data, research organizations like QUBS are better equipped to provide accurate data for research questions. Another significant lesson learned from this project is the importance of strong organizational and communication skills. Effective communication led to a successful execution of data collection and management. Communicating questions and concerns directly with the team members allowed us to foster collaboration and to innovate and problem-solve, ultimately allowing us to attain the goals of this project.
The Hydroball project was a highlight of our summer here at QUBS. Being a part of every step of the process from data acquisition, processing, management and application was incredibly rewarding. We have definitely gained a new appreciation for sunrises above Lake Opinicon, even though it meant waking up at 4:45am to start collecting data! The final product of our work will be a detailed, high accuracy bathymetric map of a significant portion of Lake Opinicon. This information will be further used for multiple research projects at QUBS for many years to come.
Thank you to Kevin J. Wilson from CIDCO for providing us with the training and guidance to use the Hydroball at QUBS. Also thank you to Lougheed lab members and other QUBS SWEP 2018 staff for assisting in the data collection; this project would not have been possible if it wasn’t for your generous help!