On some of the best days, my line of work as a botanist can be part geocaching, part scavenger hunt, part amazing race. Oh, and part miraculous coincidence.
Case in point: at the end of May, my colleagues and I spent four days in southern Ontario looking for the Canadian rarity, Porter’s Twisted Moss. We carefully researched places where it had been found in the past, sought guidance from local knowledge-holders, obtained permission for land access, covered up from head to toe against mosquitoes and ticks, and sweated (rain, shine…and rain) up and down the Niagara Escarpment, looking for—and ultimately finding—our prize. Woohoo! Very satisfying!
However, the biggest population of this moss that we found that week required little effort. It was on the rocks lining the walkway that we sauntered up, in our sandals and shorts, to shop for souvenirs before hitting the highway for the drive home. I love that kind of luck.
So knowing how much I enjoyed the Porter’s Twisted Moss foray, you won’t be surprised that I was thrilled at an invitation to lend my efforts to a search for Porsild’s Bryum (Haplodontium macrocarpum) in Yukon Territory in June. It had all the ingredients of the perfect botany trip:
1. A beautiful quarry: Porsild’s Bryum is brilliant green, with plump capsules resting on sparkly leaves;
2. A mysterious and elusive habitat: this moss likes shady, wet, sheltered, and relatively undisturbed rock (often calciferous), such as one might find behind some waterfalls or on seepy, hidden cliffs;
3. An adventurous venue: They say, temptingly, that the Yukon is ‘Larger than Life’! I had never been there;
4. An awesome team: I would be working with three of biology’s inspiring, skilled, productive leaders and teachers—Syd Cannings, Bruce Bennett and Rene Belland.
Before setting out, we stopped at CBC’s studio in Whitehorse for a radio interview about the work ahead. To ensure success regardless of the search for Porsild’s Bryum, we explained that we would survey bryophytes (mosses and their liverwort cousins) everywhere we stopped. We were going to come back with great specimens and new knowledge, no matter what!
Unbeknownst to us, the interview was heard by author Ellen Davignon. She is the granddaughter of M.P. Porsild after whom Porsild’s Bryum is named. She is also the niece of A.E. Porsild, one of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s best-known botany curators. With this connection in mind, she called the station and had an interview of her own.
Our route in the first week took us from Whitehorse to Dawson and beyond. Regrouping in Whitehorse at the halfway mark, we then drove south and east, through northern British Columbia, and north again to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories. From there, we could access southeastern Yukon by helicopter.
The days were full—the long northern sunlight hours allowed us to do all the surveying we could stand. To preserve our moss samples for later identification and accession in our home herbaria, we put them in paper bags (2 lb Kraft, to be precise—they fit in the pockets of cargo pants) and spread them out to dry when the opportunity arose. While on the road, I spent time cataloguing the new specimens…thanking, all the while, the ancestors that furnished genes permitting me to type on a laptop in the back of a tightly-packed truck cab, without turning as green as the mossy samples!
Did we find Porsild’s Bryum? We hiked up numerous creeks and stopped at a lot of seepy cliffs where we can now say with some confidence that Porsild’s Bryum…isn’t found there! We experienced flat tires, gorgeous landscapes, wet boots, views of wildlife, bug bites, terrific exercise, learning experiences, some great discussions, and filled lots and lots of little paper bags. Nonetheless, we only saw Porsild’s Bryum at the one spot where someone had recorded it in the past—in northern B.C., where we laboured up a steep talus to confirm that it persists where Nathalie Cleavitt found it in 2003.
But ask us instead if we found Porsild’s granddaughter! One morning, a call arose in the truck for a coffee stop. Knowing a place with magnificent cinnamon buns nearby, Syd pulled in at Johnson’s Crossing, where we were welcomed with refreshments and friendly conversation. We soon learned that the person operating the mixer—that day only, for old time’s sake—was none other than a smiling Ellen Davignon, the author who was ready to share some stories with four travellers on the trail of a plant named for the granddad she remembered so fondly. I love that kind of luck.
My 700 paper bags of moss are now fully dried and (thanks to our fabulous summer student, Emilie Viau!) sorted into batches for identification and accession into the National Herbarium of Canada. The information gleaned from them will become part of the growing territorial biodiversity database managed expertly by the Yukon Conservation Data Centre.
Both public resources support countless projects for research, resource management, and education, and will continue to do so long after we are pushing up daisies … and moss, too!