Native Orchid News:
The Newsletter of Native Orchid Conservation Inc. 
Volume 7 Issue 3   July 2005
ISSN 1499-5476

Sweet Grass - photo by Eugene Reimer Native Orchid Conservation Inc.
117 Morier Ave, Winnipeg MB R2M0C8

For more information contact Doris Ames at 204-947-9707 or e-mail

Book Launch:
Wednesday, July 6

Brokenhead Wetlands Ecological Reserve:
click here

Plant of the Month:
Sweet Grass (Hierchloe odorata)


Brokenhead Wetlands Ecological Reserve Declared

See the  Ecological Reserve Declared  page. 

Book Launch Announcement

See our  Book Launch Announcement  page. 

President's Report

by Doris Ames

Our field guide "Orchids of Manitoba" is at the printers now and the book launch will be held Wednesday, July 6, 2005 at 8:00 PM at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Grant Park.  I hope to see many of you out there to celebrate with us and to pick up a copy of the guide if you haven't already ordered one.  Thanks to all of you who ordered copies ahead of time and thereby assisted with publication costs.  You will be contacted soon to pick up your copies. 

Our latest project, the making of an educational video and public service announcements for television about orchid conservation, is going well.  It was a pleasure working with Al Simmons who is our spokesperson on the video.  What a marvellous entertainer he is!  He also gave an excellent performance on two separate evenings and shared the profits with us as a fundraiser.  The money realized from ticket sales will go towards the financing of this project. 

The Native Orchid Conference is coming up at St.Benedict's Conference Centre in Winnipeg July 9-12th with 80 members coming from all over North America and the world to share information about native orchids and have fun.  The focus will be on the endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. 

Have a great summer and we'll see you in the fall. 

Seeing the forest in the tree: the Incredible Trembling Aspen

By John Neufeld

There are many amazing trees in the world.  The Redwoods of California, the Kauri of New Zealand and many others come to mind.  Perhaps none however is more amazing than the common, if not ubiquitous, Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides).  In my opinion it may be the most amazing of all the trees!  That may sound astonishing because it is so common.  I submit that is just because it doesn't have a good PR department.  What is so great about the ordinary poplar? 

In fact trembling aspen or quaking aspen is the most common deciduous tree in North America and the second most widely distributed on the entire planet according to B.V.Barnes and F.Han in Canadian Journal of Botany (1993) 71:799-815.  Yet it, and not the lordly Redwood or Sequoia, is considered by some scientists such as Michael C.Grant in Nature (1992) 360:216, to be the most massive organism on earth. 

Poplars or aspens have such stunning characteristics because of their reproductive capacity.  The aspen can regenerate in two ways.  One is by seed dispersal which has allowed it to develop great genetic variety.  In fact some scientists say that the aspen is the most genetically variable species they have studied to date.  Yet the aspen can also regenerate asexually.  In other words the underground portion of the aspen is responsible for asexual reproduction by its root system.  This has permitted the apparently mundane aspen to demonstrate a remarkable ability to spread and persist in one location by the process of root suckering.  In other words an individual stem can send out lateral roots that can when conditions are right send up other erect stems or trunks called ramets.  The process is then repeated until an entire stand of trees is formed which appear to be individual trees, but in a real sense are actually one giant organism.  These multiple ramets all form one huge genetic individual organism called a clone.  In a very real sense, one tree is a forest.  It shares a common root system and common genes.  That is why in an aspen grove all the leaves of a large number of trees often turn color at about the same time in the fall and then drop their leaves at about the same time too. 

The two methods of reproduction have permitted the aspen to flourish.  Even though they may disperse by seeds to a significant extent only every several hundred years or more, by their extraordinary root system they can survive and spread after disturbances like fire.  This has enabled them to persist over long periods of time when conditions are not favorable for seed dispersal.  In fact researchers found one spectacular example in the western United States that through clonal growth covered 43 hectares (106 acres) and included more than 47,000 individual ramets. 

In a forest in Michigan scientists collected data showing that one enormous aspen clone weighed more than 6 million kg (13 million lbs.).  This included its above and below parts of course.  This more than tripled its nearest rival an astonishing giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). 

The spectacular size of some clones results where there is a balance between sufficient fires to suppress conifer succession, which ordinarily inhibits aspen growth, and a suitable environment stable enough to permit the vigorous growth of aspens. 

Another amazing feature of these clones is their age.  There is still some controversy about how to determine their age, because counting the core rings is not sufficient since that just determines the age of the particular ramet.  Some biologists now say that some of these western North American clones are 10,000 years old or even older.  Even more amazing, according to some researchers like B.V.Barnes, some clones may be a million years old.  Some wildly enthusiastic scientists have even suggested they are potentially immortal!  The true Methuselah tree.  That does not mean that any individual physical tissue of the tree is that old, but rather that the clone identity has endured over a long period of time. 

Whether that explanation is satisfactory or not, it is difficult not to be astonished by our incredible trembling aspens.  They seem so ordinary, but are actually truly amazing. 

Plant of the Month

Sweet Grass (Hierchloe odorata)

By Doris Ames

The botanical name for this medicinal plant comes from the Greek word "hieros" meaning "sacred" and "chloĆ«" meaning "grass". 

The plants are 30-60cm tall with shiny, green leaves rising individually from the long, creeping rhizome.  Sweet grass blooms in early June and develops a panicle of golden seedheads in late June or early July. 

Sweet grass is a perennial plant and prefers to grow in moist meadows, prairies, and damp sloughs, with a moderate degree of salinity, and on roadsides where de-icing salt is used. 

The grass is harvested and dried in late fall around the end of September or early October before the first hard frost.  The leaves are yellowish at this time and the stems are pinkish-purple.  Crushing the grass releases the sweet smell of coumarin, which is its distinctive odour, as does burning the dried grass.  The plant can be recognized at any time because the leaf blades catch on your fingers if rubbed backwards. 

Sacred to the Plains Indians, it is carried in medicinal pouches for spiritual protection, and dried braids of grass are burned as a purifying smudge during sweet grass ceremonies to promote the positive energies of love and unity.  Dried grass is boiled to make a tea used to thin the blood, the smoke is inhaled to relieve cold symptoms, and it serves as an all-round panacea for practitioners of traditional medicine. 

Sweet grass has other uses as well.  Baskets and mats are made from woven grass and their pleasant smell lasts for many years.  The long creeping roots are excellent for soil stabilization and for control of erosion due to water.  It will tolerate salty run-off from roadsides and is extremely fast growing. 

You can see sweet grass growing at The Forks in the prairie garden near the oodena ceremonial circle.  Seeds and small greenhouse-grown plants are available from some wildflower nurseries.  The plants do well under cultivation and spread very quickly.