Exploring my little piece of the planet

Posts tagged “Canada

Kidney-Leaved Violet

Viola renifolia A Gray
Also known as White Violet, Northern White Violet

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Poking through moist leaf litter or deep moss, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is one of the first signs that spring has truly come to the hills. In the four years that I have photographed this little beauty, all images were taken between the last days of May and the end of June.

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The species name renifolia refers to the kidney-shape of this violet’s leaves. They are further described as orbicular, or rounded-convex, and cordate, heart-shaped. (source) They are toothed and slightly hairy on the underside.

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One of many violets native to North America, the Kidney-leaved violet can be found across Canada and south to the northern United States. Rising above the loose cluster of leaves, its flower is classic violet distinguished by its white colour with purple striping on its lip petal and wings (side petals), although most that I have found have very sparse striping on the wings or none at all. The stripes are thought to be guides for insects, encouraging them to push into the flower’s throat for nectar. V. renifolia has no beard to comb pollen from visiting insects and a very short spur.

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Many violets produce a late-season flowers if the first blooms remain unfertilized. They bloom so soon after the snow has retreated from under the thick coniferous canopy that often pollinators are not yet active. These  late blooms are closed and hidden and self-pollinating. Violet seeds are dispersed in small explosions and carried away by ants attracted to a special oil on their surface.

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One half cup of violet leaves contains as much vitamin C as 4 oranges. They are also high in vitamin A. All above-ground parts of the violet are edible but the rhizomes, fruits and/or seeds of some are poisonous. The plant was used by the Cree in salves, tonics and as a (mildly laxative) relaxing tea. (source)

I can’t imagine gathering enough to do anything with, without wiping out entire populations. I have, however garnished the odd salad with ‘johnny-jump-ups’, which volunteer en masse in my garden.

Quandaries With Identification

Of three slightly different-looking violets that I’ve found in the local woods, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is the most abundant. It’s easily distinguished from the Early Blue Violet V. adunca by its white flowers. I’m less sure about one that might be Western Canada Violet, V. canadensis only because it has a point at the tip of it’s heart-shaped leaves. There are other features that make me less sure. A closer look next spring will hopefully tell.

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Western Canada Violet?

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Early Blue Violet

‘My’ violets are very tiny but I’m not quite as concerned with this as sources vary in their estimation of leaf-width and plant height. (My finger behind the top leaf in the above image is about 12mm wide.)

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There is also conflict in my resources as to whether this plant has rhisomes (link) or not (link) but I’m reluctant to dig one up to find out. I’m tempted to do a little scratching next spring however because the absence of stolons is apparently one of the best ways to distinguish it from V. pallens, which is listed in  Rare Vascular Plants of Alberta by Kershaw et al. I don’t think it is though, because the ones I’ve photographed have leaves that are slightly hairy on the underside.

Selected Resources:

My flora books specifically linked in the text
NatureServe Explorer
USDA Plants Database


Early Blue Violet

Viola adunca
Other common names: Hookedspur Violet, Early Blue Violet, Sand Violet, and Western Dog Violet

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O wind, where have you been,
That you blow so sweet?
Among the violets
Which blossom at your feet.

The honeysuckle waits
For Summer and for heat
But violets in the chilly Spring
Make the turf so sweet.

Cristina (Georgina) Rossetti

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Symbolizing the love of truth, or the truth of love, blue violets feature in many legends. They sprang from the blood of Greek god Attis and from where Orpheus laid his enchanted lute. Zeus created them for Io (the Greek word for violet) after turning her into a cow. Venus beat her rivals until they turned into violets and yet violets came to symbolize modesty or humility for Christians. In Iroquois legend, the first blue violets sprang from where the bodies of two lovers had fallen after being murdered by her people. (source)

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Although I realize V. adunca may not have been the exact species to inspire the mythology and literary arts of the past, it’s easy to imagine how any of its sisters may have. I have, so far, only found them on one east-facing slope above a narrow forest ravine. And what a find! What joy to come upon these sparkles of blue among litter of the previous summer’s decaying cast-offs.

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With wings lightly bearded at the pale, darkly penciled throat, the soft violet flower stands above juicy green leaves like a diminutive queen above her ladies laden with sustenance. There are at least 15 species of violets in Alberta, all beloved for their charming flowers in various shades of blue, yellow and white. What flower lover doesn’t recognize the five petaled princess: two petals in pairs at either side, a usually striped or penciled lower lip and a spur.

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Not quite as widespread as V. renifolia, this North American species is still listed as secure. (link) It is a larval and/or nectar host for several butterflies (link).

The species name adunca refers to the Early Blue Violet’s hooked spur, which I haven’t (yet) succeeded in photographing.

More about violets in general can be found on the Kidney-Leaved Violet page.

Selected Resources:

My flora books specifically linked in the text
Northwestern Mountain Wildflowers
NatureServe
Montana Plant Life
University of Texas Native Plant Database


Chipping Sparrow

Spizella passerina

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The little Chipping Sparrow is just another common LBJ (Little Brown Job) that we hear all the time and often see flitting around the ground and shrubs but can’t distinguish from all the other LBJs doing more or less the same thing. Although passerine just means “little sparrow” and spizella simply identifies it with a few other little sparrows, it is distinctive once you take a closer look. It’s named for the sharp chip it sends out to let its mate know where it is (its call). Its song can also be described as a series of super-fast chips but a rattle, or single-noted trill is more precise.

Those in the know claim that males who have staked territories near one another impressively develop their one repeated note into individual songs. The Chipping Sparrow’s song sounds a lot like that of a Dark-eyed Junco, but the sparrow’s note is repeated more quickly and is less metallic-sounding. A third sound this bird makes is an extended seep, warning of a nearby hawk or other predator.

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The Chipping Sparrow shouldn’t really even qualify as an LBJ since once it turns around, or you can see it from below, its smooth, pale grey breast, along with the dramatic black eye-line accented by a white eyebrow are giveaways. Its orangey-pink legs and feet are also characteristic. Migration takes this bird from far north of here in the Canadian sub-arctic all the way south as far as Nicaragua in the winter, where its bright rufus cap fades a bit and as if taking a tan, its breast and belly become a little darker. Fairly solitary during the breeding season, afterwards these birds form loose groups intriguingly known as a tournament.

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Males are quite territorial and will guard their lifetime mate as she builds her flimsy nest and incubates the eggs. Although light can be seen through the loose weave, she indulges her future nestlings with a soft lining of hair or fur. Chipping Sparrows were once known as “Hair Birds” for this reason. Although quite adaptable when it comes to the location for her nest, she prefers conifers (wild or ornamental) and usually builds among thick foliage at the ends of branches not more than 10′ from the ground. Like many other birds, the female develops a fluid-filled bare patch on her abdomen during breeding season that helps to keep her eggs warm during incubation.

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Seeds and small insects form most of the Chipping Sparrows diet. It will readily visit backyard feeders where it pays for its dinner by picking off some of the mosquitoes and flies.

In 1929, Edward Forbush called the Chipping Sparrow “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.” Source

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Sources:

All About Birds
What Bird
iBird (iPhone app)
My nature books


Northern Shoveler

Also known as Spoonbill
Anas clypeata

Northern Shoveler

A Male Northern Shoveler in morning light

The first pictures this year of the Northern Shovelers on the marsh near my work were taken on May 21. Two pair, or at least 2 males and 2 females floated, paddled and mostly put their heads down like a snow-plow’s bucket and skimmed the water beneath the surface for nourishment.

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Two pair of Northern Shovelers and a pair of Green-Winged Teal on the marsh, late May

As dabblers, Northern Shovelers feed on any little animal or vegetative matter they find in shallow water and prefer marshes like the small wetland I visit most days. Their enormous, spoon-like bill and comb-like projections on the tongue give them the advantage of being able to strain small invertebrates from the mud at the pond’s bottom. The scientific species name clypeata means ‘furnished with a shield’ referring to this duck’s unique bill.

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A pair of Northern Shovelers dabbling in the marsh in early June

At first it wasn’t obvious that these ducks are monogamous. The four of them seemed quite content to dabble together, but within days it was clear that my little marsh might not be large enough for them all as at least one male would spring from the water towards the other whenever he came too close to his mate. Rising in a rush like a spring, he cut a low, direct path to the intruder, briefly scolding him, “took, took, took”, in his restrained but obviously effective way. Then circling to return and skim the water, with one strong wing stroke he would come to a skidding stop close to his mate. It was comical to see how quickly he would return to feeding as it was all in a day’s work.

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Returning from a short flight to warn away another male, a Northern Shoveler skids to a stop with his powerful wings.

Other ducks and even the resident muskrat don’t give him a moment’s pause. I often saw the Shovelers sleeping or preening on a raised mound of muskrat-mud with the much smaller green-winged teal, or sometimes a blue-winged teal close at hand.

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Unconcerned, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself while a much smaller male Green-Winged Teal swims near his mate.

Floating, sitting or standing – bright orange legs and feet displayed – the female seemed to be always either feeding or sleeping. The male, in contrast, appears to spend the majority of his time preening himself. Perhaps that’s how he entertains himself while keeping watch.

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While his mate sleeps with her head tucked up in her wing, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself.

Almost as large as the Mallard, with a wing span of nearly a metre and a similarly coloured, iridescent green head and neck, the fairly common Northern Shoveler is often at first confused with this ubiquitous duck.

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The morning light shows the iridescent green head and chestnut-coloured sides of the Northern Shoveler, reminiscent of the Mallard. However identification can be clarified by the massive bill, yellow eyes and white chest.

A closer look will end the confusion. As the marsh vegetation grows, it becomes more and more difficult to see the residents but the male Northern Shoveler often stands out with its yellow eyes, bright white breast and belly, and rufous chestnut sides, a fleeting sparkle in the reeds.

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A ‘channel’ through the marsh reveals the eye-shaped identifying pattern of the male Northern Shoveler.

The female in contrast, as most female ducks do, blends in well with the vegetation and its reflection in the water with the dappled-looking chevron pattern of her back and wing feathers. I look for her huge yellow-orange rimmed bill shining in the sunlight. The Northern Shoveler’s profile is the give-away.

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A cloudy sky deadens reflections that normally help camouflage the unique silhouette of the Northern Shoveler as she rests on a clump of mud and grass.

Now I believe they are nesting. The marsh is quiet. The female should be sitting on eggs in a nest hidden in the thickest vegetation, purportedly away from the water. It’s getting more and more difficult to discern whether there are still two pair in residence. If there are, they are staying well clear of each other as I only occasionally see a lone male to reassure me that they’re still around.

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An aggressive defender of his mate and territory while breeding, the male Northern Shoveler often abandons the family during incubation.

I’m very curious to find their nest since the little wetland is bordered by a thin strip of conifer forest rising right into town. Northern Shovelers are said to nest 75-200 feet from water. If that’s the case, although I am a poor judge of distance, I’d say they’re into the well-worn forest very close to industrial on one side (including an oil well) and residential lots on the other.

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Northern Shovelers are monogamous, often returning to the same breeding and nesting areas between their long migrations as far as the west coast of Mexico.

For more information on the Northern Shoveler:

What Bird
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Scroll a bit for sounds)
Boreal Songbird Initiative
Birds of Alberta (With interesting feather chart)

For some great pictures of the Northern Shoveler:

Rob McKay Photography
Flickr


Bohemian Waxwing

Bombycilla garulus

In a corner of our neighbour’s back yard, behind their garage and feet from the standard chain-link fences installed by the oil companies who originally planted our houses here in the 1970’s, hunkers a stunted but stalwart crab-apple tree. Its delicate springtime blossoms and bitter fall fruit go mostly unnoticed, almost hidden as it is among the utilitarian structures of adjoining neighbours’ storage sheds. I can see it though, and I watch it closely at certain times of the year since I know it is a favourite of the properly nomadic, bohemian waxwing.

I usually hear them first, their amicable and indeed garulus gabble precedes the synchronized flight of the flock, gathering for their communal winter foraging in November or returning to town in April to clean out the fruit before setting up their nests high in the pines, deep in the boreal forest.

I’ve seen their call described as abrasive, and indeed some of the audio files I came across researching this article are true to that descriptor. However, even close up I find the sound of a flock whirring through the air or busily feeding on mountain ash or my neighbour’s crab-apple tree, soft and pleasant, comforting even, like the mellow slide and sloosh of a forest stream over smoothed rocks.


With the grace and rarity of Japanese dragon kites, the undulating flight of an ear-full or museum of waxwings (who decided on and who agreed that these would be the collective terms for waxwings, I do not know) fleetingly enliven the early spring and late fall skies and draw me outdoors to clamber through new or rotting snow to visit my neighbour’s crab-apple tree.

Although watchful, with confidence or bravado, these glossily-adorned and elegant beauties have often allowed me to come to within a few metres of them as they gorge and quarrel, and often share the rotting fruit.

Waxwings get their name from the elongated yellow beads that extend from their secondary feathers, but their whole sleek bodies seem expertly crafted from softened wax, or silken fabric, fresh dyed with rich spices and woven more sturdily at wing- and tail-tips; the saffron yellow and Syrian Rue red procured from the masters. Their generic name, Bombycilla, comes from ‘silky tails’, the term directly used for their name in some eastern European languages.

Adroitly darting about on tapered wings, their limber bodies nimbly bending and twisting, keenly intent on nourishment, I am mesmerized by the intensity of exotic colour flashing through the pale winter grays, and entertained by their determination and single-mindedness.

A metre of snow may have covered a winter’s accumulation of dropped fruit, but anything visible is not wasted, the fresh layer easily mined.

Although possibly declining, the bohemian waxwing is numerous and has such a broad range (circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere) it is considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN Red List. See the IUCN listing for Bombycilla garrulus and Environment Canada species listing.

Recommended:
Wonders of the Waxwings: Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings
by Robin Robinson
Wobbling Waxwings by Next Door Nature


Twinflower

or Linnaea, Deer Vine, Ground Vine, Twin Sisters
Linnaea borealis

Delicate and diminutive, this distinctive member of the honeysuckle family grows with the moss among lingonberry and bunchberry. It spreads along the forest floor on lacy vines, sending up clonal shoots at intervals.The Dena’ina name for this sweetly fragrant plant is “k’ela tl’lia” or “mouse’s rope”,  a fitting description of the meandering vines depicted well on this page.

This charming plant is circumpolar, but is distinguished by continent. It is interesting and perhaps a warning for other varieties that the subspecies borealis growing in Scotland is threatened by its increasing inability to reproduce due to the fragmentation of its ecosystem. (Read more here.) It is listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated through much of the United States. (link)

Twinflower was the favourite plant of Carlolus Linnaeus, who established the two-name (binomial) system of classification for plants. It was his teacher who officially named the genus, (whose only species member is the twinflower), after Linnaeus and when the latter scientist adopted it as his personal emblem, he said of it, “Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief time—from Linnaeus, who resembles it” (Wikipedia)

Blooming in the early to mid-summer, the elegant twinflower was used by First Nations people for a calming and healing tea. It likes partly shaded areas where the moss is moist and the shed evergreen needles acidify the humus somewhat.

He saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight Linnaea hang its twin-born heads,
And blessed the monument of the man of flowers,
Which breathes his sweet fame through the northern bowers.

from Woodnotes I, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Other resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies
by George & Hälle Flygare. Hurtig, Alberta 1986

Alberta Plant Watch
Native Plant Database


Yellow Marsh Marigold

or Marsh Marigold, Kingcup
Caltha palustris

While so many of our spring flowers are miniscule, the Marsh Marigold is a delight to discover in an open area by a sluggish stream. The plant itself is brilliant and showy with its large waxy leaves. Many a bowl of reassuring freshness has adorned spring tables through freezing nights and late snows.

It’s so scrumptious looking that you might be tempted to take a bite…but don’t! This entire plant is poisonous. It is toxic to the heart and can cause inflammation of the digestive organs. Handling the leaves can cause the skin to blister. The poison is volatile however and dried or cooked it is rendered harmless.

The spring blossoms of the marsh marigold have long been appreciated for their early colour.  Like earthbound sunshine, patches of brilliant yellow set among shining green rise from brown and crumpled grasses in boggy roadside ditches and fens in early to mid June, as if beckoning returning waterfowl to potential, if not ideal nesting sites.

A polymorphic species, it occurs throughout the northern hemisphere in varied forms and goes by many names, most of which celebrate its welcome as a beautiful harbinger of spring. ‘Marigold’, used now over much of the modern english-speaking world, originated with Anglo-saxon celebrants of Easter, who gave the name to honour the Christian St. Mary.

By the end of July the waxy blossoms have done their work and the stellate seed clusters adorn the softened, but still handsome mound of leaves.

Depending on the source, the genus name ‘Caltha’ may refer to the colour or to the cup shape of the opening blossoms. Its species name, ‘palustris’, meaning ‘of the marsh’, clearly describes its habitat.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004

Caltha palustris on Wikipedia
Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago


One-Flowered Wintergreen

or Single Delight, Woodnymph, Shy Maiden, St. Olaf’s Candlestick, Waxflower
Moneses uniflora
(previously called Pyrola uniflora)

Until I began to research this sweet jewel, I did not know that one of its common names is ‘woodnymph’. How fitting, as like tiny waxen lanterns under the evergreens, the one-flowered wintergreen shine with soft luminescence. It is not difficult to imagine them dancing capriciously through the deep mosses when not observed by lesser mortals.

Another of its common names speaks to its habit of keeping its head bowed until mature. The shy maiden hides its beautiful face, providing shelter for visiting bees whose wings collect and deposit pollen in a process known as buzz-pollination.

After fertilization, the scapose (leafless) stem straightens, the petals fall off and the crowned fruit begins to form.

Like many native species, the one-flowered wintergreen depends on particular fungus occurring in the moist, humus-rich forest floor just as the pine and spruce provide required shade. Although it is globally abundant throughout boreal habitats, collection and forest harvest have caused its decline in some regions. It is reputed to be edible, high in Vitamin C and effective in the treatment of some skin problems. In recent years it was discovered to contain a new antibiotic.

Although the one-flowered wintergreen was originally grouped with others in the wintergreen family, it was distinguished in 1843 by Thomas Nutall to Moneses, a monotypic species. “Asa Gray gave it its present name in 1848.  “Moneses” is a combination of the Greek “monos” (“one”) and “hesis” (“delight”).” (1) “Uniflora” refers to its lone blossom.

And delightful it is. Recline on the mossy bed. Lay your head next to this shy maiden to gaze into the surprisingly compelling face of intricate beauty. Then close your eyes and inhale the delicate perfume. You too may become enchanted.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004

CYSIP (Central Yukon Species Inventory Project)
U.S. Forest Service
The Plant Network
Colorado Native Plant Society


Strawberryleaf Raspberry

Rubus pedatus
~ also called Strawberry Bramble, 5-Leaved Bramble and Creeping Raspberry

I’m the kind of person that can have an engaging conversation with you and not be able to tell somebody later what you were wearing, so it was especially exciting for me when I noticed this little plant in a small deep-moss  clearing. It’s not so much that I’d never seen it before, it’s that I’d never really seen it!

Perhaps I had never seen it in bloom and may have mistaken its foliage for that of one of its cousins, the Dwarf Raspberry. In bloom I might have assumed that it was another relative, the Wild Strawberry. It’s very tiny.

A closer look reveals that this flower is quite different from a strawberry’s. The petals are more elongated and the centre was different. It had three very distinct superior ovaries with styles that turn pink along with the base of the petals and sepals as the flower matures.

The sepals are drooping at first, as you can see in the top picture and then in more mature blooms raised level below the petals. As the petals fall off it seems they continue to rise to enclose the fruit.

Single leaf and flower stalk emerge separately from the moss, about 5-7 centimetres high.

The leaves were different as well. At first I thought it had five leaflets on its palmately divided leaf, but the side leaflets are just so deeply cleft that there are actually only three.

Apparently the number of ovaries can vary as the fruit can have from 1-6 drupelets.

I had a really hard time identifying this plant. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, or through Internet searching so I posted it to a couple of groups on Flickr that help with this kind of thing. The following day I was very grateful to receive a positive ID from Tiggrx. I later found it in Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977) as a note within the description for the Dewberry.

There are literally hundreds of plants in the Rubus genus, which it is believed has survived for some 36,000 years and exists on all continents except Antarctica. This little treasure is just another little sibling in the family and I don’t know how long I’ve been rudely ignoring it. It is a beauty. It fully deserves the risk of getting a little damp as you lay down in the soft deep moss to spend some time getting to know it better.

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Resources:

Turner Photographics
E-Flora BC
USDA Plants Database

Many thanks to Tiggrx for identifying this plant for me.