03 March 2015

For a New Plant, I Would Crawl to the Edge of the Earth

When most of my friends and family hear that I've gone botanizing for the day, they probably have images of me strolling lazily along a trail through a dry area devoid of poison ivy, plants with thorns and prickles, mosquitoes, yellow jackets, and venomous snakes on a comfortable spring day.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, that couldn't be farther from the truth.  My travels take me to the edges of the Earth, almost literally in some cases.
Scott defies death to photograph a plant. Photo by Erin Victory.
Such was the case on 11 July 2014. While in Keweenaw County, Michigan, Brad Slaughter, Erin Victory, and I were joined by Janet Marr on a trip to Brockway Mountain.  As you can see in the photographs, Brockway Mountain, which reaches 1,320 feet above sea level, drops steeply to mature forest.  Very steeply.  Steeply enough that to see one little plant we crawled on the volcanic rock to the furthest extent that we could go and still feel like we had the toes of our boots firmly planted in a secure crevice. 

Long way down. Photo by Erin Victory.
To add to the danger (and it truly was danger, especially looking back and remembering how I felt at a couple of moments while laying on my belly holding onto the edge of the Earth), it was raining, making everything, especially the creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) on which we were laying, very slick.  The wind... my gosh... the wind.  "Relentless" is the only way to describe it.  One wrong move, and it really would have been over.  This was the same day that LeBron James announced he was returning to Cleveland to bring the Cavaliers and the city that I grew up 30 minutes from a much needed and long awaited championship.  I made a comment to Brad at one point that this was how it was going to end for me... that I would never see a Cleveland major sports championship, and this silly plant would be the reason why.

Brad and Erin get in on the game.
Luckily, I'm here today to write about our trip. And this is what it's like when I go out botanizing.  Okay, this was probably one of my most dangerous outings ever, but it's never all butterflies and flowers.

So what plant could possibly lure us into this dangerous predicament?

Erin livin' life on the edge.
You can see the object of our obsession in the middle of the photograph below.  It's the slightly yellowish green, diminutive plant with tiny white flowers.  Still not sure what it is?  It's one of the rarest species in Michigan, found only on the conglomerate cliff of Brockway Mountain, and this was the only individual we saw.  We were lucky to have Janet with us to show us the location, or we easily could have overlooked it.

We did it all for this plant.
We were there to see Keweenaw rock-rose (Chamaerhodos erecta ssp. nuttallii), a state endangered and critically imperiled member of the family Rosaceae that is considered a western disjunct species (a species geographically separated from its wider distribution area in the western United States). Sadly, this gem is surrounded by invasive species including spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe ssp. micranthos) and honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.), so even if trampling and rock climbing don't do it in, its days of occurrence in Michigan may be numbered. Unfortunately, the relentless wind that I mentioned previously prevented perfectly focused photos, even on this low-growing plant.

Keweenaw Rock Rose
Once we crawled back up to safety, we were shown how to correctly approach this cliff-dwelling species by legendary Michigan botanist Tony Reznicek, who essentially took a few rapid steps, leapt, and landed on his belly, clutching the cliff inches from the edge. He shot a couple of quick photos, hopped back up, and walked to where we were standing awestruck, still covering our eyes due to Tony's incredibly dangerous yet confident feet. Regardless, you won't see me doing this anytime soon.  I'll continue to crawl.


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