Plant of the Week: Pathfinder Plant (Adenocaulon bicolor)

Another fun aster! I found a patch of pathfinder plants showing flowers and fruit on my hike this week and spent nearly 30 minutes just lying on the trail and trying to get good photos of them. Even with a macro lens, getting in-focus pictures of the tiny flowers was quite difficult. Contrast that with the large, recognizable leaves – even when not flowering, the triangular leaf shape with a light underside makes this a relatively easy plant to identify.

Pathfinder plant has distinct triangular leaves that are smooth green on top, light woolly green beneath

Compound flower of pathfinder plant: fruiting pistillate flowers with staminate flowers in center. The fruits bear stalked glands on the upper half. The stems are covered in stalked glands as well. It’s a sticky plant.

Asters do this fun thing where what looks like a singular flower head is actually a cluster of smaller flowers. For example, a sunflower is a circle of “ray flowers” around a circular field of “disk flowers.” The next time you see one, get a closer look and try to find the pistils/stamen in the component flowers. Last week’s plant, white-flowering hawkweed, is all ray flowers. Pathfinder plant is all disk flowers. Not all the flowers have the same bits, though. The center of the composite flower head bears staminate flowers, with pistillate flowers surrounding them. The elongated fruits then grow from the pistillate flowers.

Fruits getting bigger… staminate flowers remaining in center

Eventually only the fruit remains. I like how perfectly pentagonal this one is!

Sticky hairs cover the stems and fruits of pathfinder plant. I found multiple insects stuck in them. I don’t know if this is carnivory (it certainly looks a bit like a sundew), or the plant simply limiting the types of insects able to access its flowers. Either way, cool and creepy!

A tiny bug stuck on the even tinier sticky hairs on the plant stem

Plant of the Week: White-flowered Hawkweed (Hieracium albiflorum)

It’s been my goal to learn a couple new plants every time I go hiking. This week, one of my new plants is white-flowered hawkweed (Hieracium albiflorum), an aster with hairy leaves. It’s a good time of year to identify this particular plant because both its flowers and seeds are present, and reproductive structures really grease the wheel of plant identification. Below are my field sketches, and my macro photos of the flower and the seedhead (both quite small!). Identification source: Gilkey and Dennis dichotomous key.

Plant identification journal

Someone asked me recently how to learn the local plants. The answer is practice and time! I took three years of Mandarin language courses during grad school, and the process of learning to read and write Chinese characters is really similar to learning to identify plants. I learned to read and write by recognizing each character’s component strokes, then recognizing the component characters making up the new character, then recognizing whole multi-character words, then phrases, and so on. Much like the component strokes of a character, plants are identified by components such as leaf margins and petal structure, which eventually can be seen as one whole “character”. All of this takes a lot of effort, and repeatedly seeing the same plant species (reading the same “character”) many times helps. Using dichotomous keys can be mystifying and full of jargon at first. I got started with a photographic guidebook and then moved on to text-only dichotomous keys.

As an example of my plant-learning process, I am posting below some excerpts from my hiking journal. Over the last several years, I have learned bit by bit what the component characteristics of different plant (and some fungi) taxa look and feel and smell and taste like, gradually expanding the number of plants I recognize. Physically writing and drawing out what I experience has helped me commit these characteristics to memory. Identifying plants really is a whole-body experience and I get a lot of satisfaction from even just identifying what family a plant is in; it makes me feel like I am surrounded by familiar friends out on my hikes. I hope you enjoy perusing my field sketches!