By Janelle Eklund
We poked our heads out of the tent to assess what the day would bring us. The cool breath of the high mountains chilled the air. Frozen dew drops clung to plants waiting for the warmth of the morning sun to release them from sleep. A clear blue sky gave promise for another glorious day of traversing slopes to survey the many plant species. July 18, 1999. Chicken Creek, Wrangell Mountains. I was volunteering to help my dear friend and botanist catalogue plants in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Plants grew in the most daunting places – steep scree slopes where steady careful footing was required. Slipping and plunging down these close-to-vertical mountain sides was not an option we relished. My early years on a balance beam came in handy. We headed up Chicken Creek to survey the orange scree slopes above camp. The climb was a grunt but well worth the effort. I was amazed at the diversity of plants growing from rocks and clinging for dear life on the steep slopes. Large patches of Arnica bobbed their heads in the cool breeze. Dwarf fireweed made their home from lower wet areas to the dry rocky slopes. A kaleidoscope of alpine plants painted the landscape. A moth held onto one sharing the moment. We were delighted to find a tiny ancient fern like plant known as Botrychium. It was even more exciting to find out that this particular Botrychium was a rare species. A single wide light green fern shaped leafet provided a backdrop for the yellow/green tiny grape-like spore clusters. Climbing into the plant with a hand lens was a journey unto itself. It had its own trails, mountains and stories.
Fast forward to the present. I was in the field behind our house snapping photos of dandelion when to my delightful surprise I bumped into – Botrichyium! It was a different species than what was found on the mountain slopes years ago – but definitely Botrichyium. And there wasn’t just one but many throughout the field. I couldn’t wait to show my botanist friend. She was also very excited and led me to some web sites about this special plant.
There are a number of species of Botrychium, some of them documented in our area, including Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Some of them are difficult to tell apart. They can often grow in mixed populations and many species are found in disturbed habitats - the mowed field behind my house being one of them. Botrychium spend most of their life underground. The spores work their way into the ground and germinate in the dark into what is called the gametophyte, one stage in the life cycle. The gametophyte may live for a few years before producing the sporophyte, which again may stay underground for a few years. Both stages require a mycorrhizal fungi for growth and development.
The common name ‘moonwort’ comes from the half shaped pinnae (leaflet). Mary Stensvold in her thesis says that moonwort was known from Roman times as having magical and medicinal properties, and it is mentioned in Leonard Fuchs 1542 herbal ‘De historia stirpium’.
Keep a sharp eye and you may be lucky to walk back in time and meet this ancient plant.
From my light to yours-
References: Mary Clay Stensvold thesis: A Taxonomic and Phylogeographic Study of the Botrychium Lunaria Complex; Mary Beth Cook, Botanist helped in researching information.
 Mary Clay Stensvold thesis: A Taxonomic and Phylogeographic Study of the Botrychium Lunaria Complex
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.