Plant of the Week #4 - Common Butterwort -   M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, July 4, 2018

Common name: Common Butterwort

Scientific name:   Pinguicula vulgaris     

Family: Lentibulariaceae (Bladderwort Family)


The Common Butterwort is a plant species that appeals to the curiosity within us all. Butterworts are carnivorous, insect-eating, perennial species. They are found in moist sites and tend to prefer bare, calcium-rich soils. Butterwort can be found within boreal forest, north and west to the Arctic coast, as it is a circumpolar species (Figure 2). The Wagner Natural Area, especially the Marl Pond Trail, is an exceptional example of where the common butterwort prefers to grow. The Wagner Natural Area is composed of very calcium-rich and moist soil, creating an ecosystem that promotes the butterworts growth and survival!

Butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris, plants usually have one long, flower-stalk that can reach from 4 – 12 cm tall. On the top of this stem, there is a purple flower, with 5 petals, that form a funnel-like tube with white hairs, and a nectar-producing spur on the back of the flower (Figure 1; Johnson et al., 1995). The flower on the common butterwort can be deceiving when walking along a path or through a moist area, as it resembles the flower of a violet. The butterwort blooms between June and July (NatureGate, 2018). Once the flower is pollinated, the plant will go to fruit and produce erect, round capsules that are 4 – 6 mm long, which will split into two pieces (Johnson et al., 1995). The leaves are what makes this plant unique. Common butterwort has greenish yellow leaves that grow in a rosette along the base of the stem. These succulent, elliptic leaves have a greasy, slimy texture on the top with edges rolled inward.    

Figure 1: Image of the Common Butterwort, showing the purple flower and the spur on the back of the flower. 

Photo credit: Jouko Lehmuskallio,

As previously mentioned, the common butterwort is a carnivorous plant and feeds itself by trapping insects with its leaves. If you look closely, you may be able to see that the upper side of the butterworts leaves seem to be spotted. These spots are actually glandular hairs! These hairs produce a sticky glue, trapping insects that touch the leaves, and then the butterwort will use enzymes to break down the insect and digest it (NatureGate, 2018). Strangely enough, the butterwort will trap and digest the same species that pollinate its flower (CYSIP, 2000). Through digestion of an insect, butterwort plants are able to gain nitrogen (Johnson et al., 1995). This is important, as butterworts prefer to live on leached and acidic soils, which are low in nitrogen. As reported by Johnson et al., there have been up to 500 small flies stuck to a single butterwort plant.

I can guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised to find these strange, carnivorous plants at Wagner Natural Area. I have certainly been grateful for any help that I can get when trying to swish, blow, and slap the mosquitoes and other insects away.

Figure 2: Circumpolar map showing the range of the Common Butterwort.   Photo credit:           



Central Yukon Species Inventory Project (CYSIP). (2000). Pinguicula vulgaris: Common Butterwort. Retrieved from

Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. (1995) Plants of the Western Forest: Boreal and Aspen Parkland. Edmonton, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing.

NatureGate. (2018). Common Butterwort. Retrieved from

Plant of the Week #3 - Pale Coralroot -   M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, June 9, 2018

Common name: Pale Coralroot, Yellow Coralroot

Scientific name:  Corallorhiza trifida Châtelain 

Family: Orchidaceae

A few years ago I became aware there are 30 species of orchid growing in Alberta, and a few weeks ago I was amazed to learn 17 of these species can be found in the Wagner Natural Area! One of these 17 species is Pale Coralroot, or Corallorhiza trifida, a perennial herb. As shown in Figure 1, this species is circumpolar, which means it is widely dispersed across North America, specifically in moist to dry forests, thickets, fens, swamps and streambanks (Johnson et al., 1995). They can be found from sea level to 3100 metres above sea level (, 2017).

Figure 1: The distribution of Pale Coralroot across North America (in green). Photo credit:

With all orchid species, they have bilateral symmetry and have 3 sepals and 3 petals (Johnson et al., 1995). A general rule is that one of the sepals is usually specially modified, and the lower sepal is modified into a lip or labellum, and can sometimes be inflated into a pouch with a hollow spur extending from it. Pale coralroot ranges from 10 to 30 cm tall, with 3 to 12 dense raceme flowers in a loose cluster at the stem tip. The yellowish white to greenish flowers found on this plant are 1 cm across (Figure 2). The flowers of this coralroot species bloom between June and July (NatureGate, 2018). The fruit of this orchid is an elliptical capsule, 4.5 – 15 mm long (, 2017). Coralroots have rhizomes that resemble ocean coral, which is where the name “coralroot” comes from.

Interestingly, visits from insects or other organisms for pollination are not entirely necessary. Pale coralroot plants are self-pollinating (NatureGate, 2018).  

Figure 2: Pale Coralroot flowers andstems. Photo credit:


Since pale coralroot does not have well developed leaves, the plant cannot produce very much chlorophyll and must resort to other means to derive the nutrients that it requires. Pale coralroot is one of the most common saprophytic orchids found in North America (Johnson et al., 1995). A saprophyte is an organism that obtains nutrients through non-living organic matter. This mode for deriving nutrition is common for fungi, so it is interesting to learn that an orchid, much less one that grows in Alberta, also derives its nutrition from non-living organic substrates. All coralroot species live in a close symbiotic relationship with soil fungi, and use up the by-products left over by these fungi, and other organisms that break down rotting plants and woody materials found in soil. 

Pale coralroot has helped prove that triple symbioses in nature exist. Through research utilizing this coralroot, a basidiomycote, and Lodgepole Pine, it was discovered that trees and this orchid can have, linked through fungus, symbiotic relationships involving three organisms (Zelmer and Currah, 1995). This research is useful, because it demonstrates a different way that pale coralroot can receive nutrition. The ability of the fungus, or basidiomycota, as found in the research to form mycorrhizas with pale coralroot and lodgepole pine, suggests that the orchid receives nutrition from the pine tree, which has chlorophyll to produce food nutrients.Though this species is generally common, its size and modest appearance make it hard to spot amongst the other vegetation. Pale coralroot can be found within the boundaries of Wagner Natural Area, and I definitely plan on finding it this summer.     

Figure 3: Rhizomes of the Pale Coralroot, which resemble ocean coral. Photo credit: Marilyn Barker,


Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. (1995) Plants of the Western Forest: Boreal and Aspen Parkland. Edmonton, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing. (2017). Corallorhiza trifida Châtel.-Pale/Northern/Yellow Coralroot. Retrieved from [June 9, 2018]

NatureGate (2018). Early Coralroot. Retrieved from [June 11, 2018]

Zelmer, C.D. and Currah, R.S. (1995). Evidence for a fungal liaison between Corallorhiza trifida (Orchidaceae) and Pinus contorta (Pinaceae). Canadian Journal of Botany. 73: 862-866. Retrieved from [June 11, 2018]

Plant of the Week #2 - Labrador Tea -   M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, May28, 2018

Common name: Labrador Tea, Hudson’s Bay Tea, swamp tea, Haida tea, etc.

Scientific name: Ledum groenlandicum or L. palustre var. latifolium

Family: Ericaceae (the Heath family)

Labrador tea is one of the many interesting plants that can be found in Wagner Natural Area, and one of the species that will certainly grab your attention. Aside from the other leafy shrubs found at Wagner, Labrador tea separates itself by having thick, leathery leaves that do not seem like they should belong in Alberta. Labrador tea is an erect evergreen shrub that grows in bogs, swamps, and moist woods, from Greenland and Labrador, across North America and Alaska (Alberta Plant Watch). Marl Pond Trail, specifically near Post #10, is an excellent place to find this plant. Labrador tea is a superb ecological indicator species, often associated with black spruce, and is characteristic of very moist soils with high acidity and low nutrient regimes (Alberta Plant Watch). As you stroll along our trail, you will notice these plants tend to colonize in groups and rarely grow alone. 
Labrador tea is able to grow up to 30-80 cm tall, and has upright and spreading branches (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre, 2015). This species also has a smooth, coppery-orange to reddish-brown bark. The rhizomes are able to grow deep into the organic layer, making Labrador tea more resistant to fire (Alberta Plant Watch). Rhizomes are modified plant stems that grow parallel to the soil surface, and are capable of putting out lateral and adventitious roots.

Figure 1: Labrador tea in Wagner Natural Area.Photo credit: Megan Edgar

The oblong, leathery leaves are a deep green colour, with an important characteristic on the underside; rusty and dense woolly hairs (Figure 2). The younger plants may not have these rusty-coloured hairs on the undersides of their leaves. These hairs are very important in differentiating Labrador tea from similar plants. Northern bog-laurel and dwarf-bog rosemary, which closely resemble Labrador tea and belong in the Heath family, have very toxic alkaloids (Johnson et al.,1995).

Figure 2: The rust-coloured underside of the Labrador tea leaves. Photo credit: Megan Edgar


Labrador tea has beautiful, white flowers that bloom from late-May through July (Alberta Plant Watch). These flowers will bloom in showy, umbrella-like clusters at the branch tips, which also have protruding stamens (Figure 3). The stamens create a fuzzy appearance. The flowers also give off a bizarre odor, which comes from the oil in the plant, which is called ledol. After the flowers are pollinated, drooping and finely haired fruits will appear in clusters at the branch tips. These fruits are narrowly oval in shape.

To my surprise, the aforementioned oil found in Labrador tea, ledol, is toxic in large quantities and can cause cramps, headaches and many other problems. This fact became even more shocking when, through my research, I found out that people have and still do drink herbal teas using the Labrador tea leaves, stems, and roots (Johnson et al., 1995). Many tribes, including the Woods Cree and Chipewyan, have used Labrador tea to create medicinal teas or salves to treat ailments such as burnt skin, stomach-aches and fever. Historically, Labrador tea has been used to repel and kill insects, using extracts from the very aromatic leaves. Moreover, non-indigenous Canadians have also used dried Labrador tea to repel fleas and to keep mice and rats out of corn cribs, a type of granary used to dry and store corn. On the more sensational side, the leaves have also been hung in closets with the intention to repel ghosts (Alberta Plant Watch). Labrador tea is definitely a plant to look for when visiting Wagner Natural Area.


Figure 3: Labrador tea in bloom. Photo credit: Go Botany -


Alberta Plant Watch. Labrador Tea. Retrieved from [May 23, 2018].

Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. (1995) Plants of the Western Forest: Boreal and Aspen Parkland. Edmonton, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre. (2015) Plant database: Ledum groenlandicum. Retrieved from [May 23, 2018].


Plant of the Week #1 - Trembling Aspen   -   M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, May 9, 2018

Common name: Trembling aspen, quaking aspen, aspen, white poplar

Scientific name: Populus tremuloides

Family: Salicaceae

If you take a walk in the forest, you may hear leaves “trembling” together in the wind. This sound originates from what is commonly known as Trembling Aspen, getting the name from the sound it makes when a breeze blows through its leaves! Aspen is a very common tree species found throughout western Canada, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Boreal and Aspen Parklands (Johnson et al., 1995). In these regions, aspen tends to grow in dry, ridge areas, as well as rich and moist sites, which makes the aspen a widespread tree. They tend to grow best in loamy soils that are well-drained and moist, which makes certain areas of the Wagner Natural Area the perfect spot for aspen to grow.

Trembling aspen are typically small to medium-sized trees that have the potential to grow up to 20 m, and in rare cases can be found to be 30 m tall (Johnson et al., 1995). Aspen bark tends to be a greenish-white colour that can become darker and roughened on the lower trunk and around the bases of branches. Their leaves are oval to nearly circular and can also be rounded to square-cut at the base of the leaf with a sharply pointed tip, which can be 3.0-7.5cm long. The “trembling” sound that happens with the slightest breeze is caused by the edges of the leaves which are finely round-toothed with leaf stalks that are flattened (Figure 1).


The tree produces drooping catkins in the early spring, before the leaves begin to show (Figure 1). Aspens are dioecious, which means that the different sexes will appear on separate trees, essentially there are “boy” and “girl” trees. The male flowers will typically have between 5 and 12 stamens. The fruit capsules are 3-5 mm long, with very small seeds that have soft hairs present.

Figure 1: Trembling aspen leaves and catkins. Photo credit: Survival World. 

Throughout my education I have learned aspen trees are one of the first species to recruit areas after a fire passes through (Johnson et al., 1995). They are the first tree species to colonize a forest succession, until they are gradually replaced by coniferous tree species. I was able to see this type of succession in Wagner Natural Area, near Atim field, as well as eventually near Post #23, where the meadow succession area is occurring. This is due to female trees being able to produce millions of seeds each year that are reliant on wind dispersal, a mode of transportation that is capable of spreading them up to 30 km in storm conditions. Moreover, the seeds can remain viable from 3 days and up to 3 weeks, which gives a larger window for successfully reproducing. Another reproductive method that they use may be considered alien-like, as they use what is called a “sucker” to self-propagate. This is done through the roots, which are able to send out underground shoots and suckers. Suckers produce trees genetically identical to the parent plant. These are typically called “clones”, which can spread and cover several hectares.


Aspens are a paramount species in many parts of Western Canada. They play a significant role in forest dynamics and possess a strong top-down influence on the other organisms that can be found in an ecosystem. In older aspen stands, the trees are able to have an impact on the light, temperature, wind, and structure composition in the lower layers of the forest. If you walk around the Marl Pond Trail, try to take note of the different climates that you can sense when you walk through. Personally, I find it awesome and interesting how different tree composition in a forest can so significantly change the amount of sunrays and wind that can penetrate and, ultimately, change the temperature. Trembling aspen can also contribute to the deadwood and litter present in an ecosystem, which provide many habitats for a myriad of organisms. In seasons where there is food shortage, some ungulates will feed on the aspen bark, which can leave extensive scars on the lower trunks (Johnson et al., 1995). Even more, aspen is also the preferred food of beavers and many ungulates will feed on the softer and younger twigs and leaves of the aspen. Certainly in Wagner Natural Area, the beavers have reportedly used aspen to build their beaver lodges and stock their winter caches.

Figure 2: Aspen trees in the fall, when the leaves start to turn golden-yellow.

Photo credit: Natural Resources Canada. (

While conducting monitoring around the natural area, we have also noticed that many of the aspen have white trunk rot (Phellinus tremulae). White trunk rot causes damage in the heartwood of aspens which can drastically decrease the structural integrity of the tree, making it much more prone to blowdown. Some areas within Wagner definitely support this, as there are many more trees that have fallen where white trunk rot is detectable. This is very common for aspens, and can be identified by the outward signs of fruiting bodies of the fungus, otherwise known as conks, found on the tree. By the time that the conks are noticeable on the trunk of the aspen, the rot will have been completely established. These trees, which will ultimately die, will be excellent habitat for many beetles and other insects to inhabit. I know that these are the areas that I will be watching throughout the summer season in hopes of spotting birds! Pileated woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and any other bird species that love to eat insects hidden within the bark, will definitely be around these rotting aspens.

Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. (1995) Plants of the Western Forest: Boreal and Aspen Parkland. Edmonton, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing.