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Updated: Jul 24, 2019

by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Our second audio story is here! You can hear Caitlin's story using the video link below. A transcript is also available below:

I fell in love with alpine plants at the bottom of the mountain. In college I worked as an environmental educator at a backcountry hut in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Many of these huts are “high mountain,” perched just at treeline for beautiful hikes through alpine communities with Sound-of-Music-style panoramic views of open summits.

My hut, Zealand Falls, was not a high mountain hut. Our elevation was 2700’ and we were surrounded by lowland trees like paper birch and striped maple. But, Zealand Falls had waterfalls. During the lull of midday — the post-breakfast quiet when all of last night’s guests had hiked on to higher peaks, and that night’s guests were still trudging up the trail — I spent hours wading up the Zealand River, lounging in the rills and climbing the falls.

Little clumps of butter-cup-yellow flowers clung to the moss-covered rocks in the middle of the falls: mountain avens. In New Hampshire, mountain avens belong to much higher elevations; this rare plant with a truly weird post-glacial distribution is endemic to the White Mountain alpine zone and coastal Nova Scotia. Mountain avens are supposed to be high mountain hut plants, not inland valley forest plants.

The mountain aven

They didn’t grow on the banks of the river, or anywhere in the forest around the hut, just the waterfall. They seemed to know what I knew: the falls were a cool retreat from the July heat. Living with mountain avens, and sharing their waterfall microclimate for a summer, made me feel like I had a secret alpine plant “pet.”

Years later, as a graduate student, I returned to the White Mountains. I monitored plots full of mountain avens clustered around the high mountain huts. In the post-breakfast quiet, I’d grab a leftover muffin, walk outside while the college hut croo wrapped up washing dishes and settle in against a glacial erratic to record flowering across my plots, adding another season of data to a long-term project tracing the ecological impacts of climate change on alpine plants. The low elevation waterfall avens were not included in the study design, and when I started my PhD, my dissertation research shifted east to Acadia National Park, a dark spot in the mountain avens’ disjointed range map. I’d visit the waterfall avens in the off-season, hiking the familiar trail to Zealand Falls on long weekends in the fall, once dragging my labmates along through November snow flurries on the day before we had a conference in the valley.

Now, as a postdoc, my alpine plants are more abstract. I collect pollen cores from high elevation ponds in New England and sift through the layers of mud. For 15,000 years these ponds have kept a record of the plant communities along their shores; as leaves and seeds and pollen fall into the water, they are archived in the mud at the bottom. My research aims to read that archive and trace the changes in the plant communities over time. If we can reconstruct how alpine vegetation responded to past warming events, maybe we can get a better handle on how these plants will fare under future climate change.

I probably won’t see mountain aven pollen in my cores. Mountain avens are too rare, and they are insect pollinated. If a couple rogue grains of mountain aven pollen did make it into one of my ponds at some point in the past, they are probably swamped by contributions from other species, the wind-pollinators are so prolific, the spruce and fir trees at the edge of treeline so common. In my “student kit” — a box of pre-made slides to help me learn my pollens — there is no mountain aven slide. But, I’ve found mountain avens in unexpected places before.

Of course, the real question isn’t will I see mountain aven pollen in a slice of pond sediment from 8,000 years ago? The real question is this: will my daughters, and someday their children, be able to hike to the high mountain huts and find mountain avens in the alpine zone? What plant will they they fall in love with at a low elevation waterfall? And will they have to spend their careers documenting the probability of its extinction?

A young Caitlin in Maine

To read about Caitlin's PLS Live experience and storytelling check out her post in the PLOS Ecology Community Blog: On Story Telling.

Caitlin "mountain aven" McDonough MacKenzie is a 2017 Smith fellow and a founder of Plant Love Stories. She uses fossil pollen to study plants of the past alpine plant communities in Maine. You can follow Caitlin in Maine at @CaitlinInMaine

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by Meade Krosby

Meade on a wave

Note: Plant Love Stories recently had it's first LIVE event, as part of the North American Congress on Conservation Biology in Toronto. We heard wonderful plant love stories from amazing storytellers, and will be posting some of their stories in the coming weeks. The audio from the live event wasn't too great (we were in a loud bar), so we

rerecorded the audio when we could.

Our first story is by Meade Krosby. You can hear her story using the video link below or here (soundcloud). A transcript of her story is available below:

This is a story about kelp, which will begin with two caveats. The first is that kelp is not actually a plant, but it is so similar to a plant, I’d argue, that I’m going to give it a pass for the purposes of plant love. Kelp is, in fact, a large brown seaweed, but it could easily be mistaken for a plant. It anchors itself to the ocean floor with a strong, root-like structure called a holdfast, from which a long stem, called a stipe, extends upward, sprouting luxuriant, glossy leaves, called blades, that reach up to the ocean surface to catch the sunlight. Kelp grows in cold, coastal waters, forming large dense patches called forests. When I think about plant love, kelp is the first thing that comes to my mind. Which brings me to my second caveat, which is that my love for kelp is actually more of a love-hate relationship – but it’s mostly love – and that’s because I’m a surfer.

Surfers are very particular about their waves. We want waves with smooth, green faces – these moving walls of water are our canvas, our playing field. For that reason, we typically don’t want to surf waves made by local winds or nearby storms, because these waves are usually messy and weak, making them no fun to surf. We want waves that have traveled long distances, from storms far, far away – storms that we’ll never see. The swells that bring these waves have been groomed by their long journey through the ocean, arriving to us clean and strong and organized, with no sign of the storms that made them. Thus, it’s a real shame when one of these beautiful, long-distance swells arrives but nearby winds have introduced chop to the water, messing everything up. And that’s where kelp comes in. Kelp – with its long straight stems and flowing leaves – acts like a beautiful, glossy comb, or sieve, through the water: the long-distance swells with enough energy pass right through, but messy, low energy local waves hit the kelp and – poof! – disappear. Thus, waves that pass through kelp are groomed – they’re glassy and clean and liquid and perfect. As long as the kelp is in deep water out past where the breaking waves are – and that’s typical of the bull kelp that grows where I live in the Pacific Northwest – then that kelp is a surfer’s best friend.

Sometimes, though, kelp is a surfer’s worst enemy – if you have to paddle through it, or if it’s growing right where the wave you want to surf is breaking – because it is a cruel, slow, Sisyphean experience to paddle through kelp, and if you try to catch a wave in kelp it will stop your board in its tracks and you’ll go flying over the handlebars.

But sometimes, the kelp is in a sweet spot – growing right where the wave you want to surf is breaking, but too sparse or too low in the water to interfere when the wave rises up and it’s time for you to hop on. This is sometimes the case at my favorite surf spot, which has strong currents when the tide is changing, making it almost impossible to stay in the right spot to catch a wave. So, when I’m surfing there and I don’t want to keep paddling on an endless conveyer belt, tiring myself out against the tide, I wrap the kelp around me to stay in place during lulls, like a harness – just like sea otters do when they sleep so they don’t drift out to sea. And it is a magical thing to be floating in the ocean, feeling the pull of the tide, held in the strong, silky arms of kelp.

So, here’s to kelp – the plant that is not a plant, but that is (except when it isn’t) every surfer’s favorite plant in the water.

Meade Krosby is a Senior Scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington and Deputy University Director of the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. When not working to build climate resilience, Meade can be found surfing the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest with family and friends.

Cover photo by Dawson Photography

Kelp forest photo by NOAA

More info:

So is kelp really not a plant? Technically, it's a protist! You can read more here: The Secret Life of Kelp, by Jessica Carilli

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Yael S.

I’m writing a story of the movie Little Shop of Horrors because there is a big plant. And it eats bugs. And it is cool because it grows so big and can talk. And it has babies. And I love it because it has a funny voice and it likes blood and needs it to survive.

Yael S., 7 years-old.


Note from the Editors: This week, we are excited to post a submission from a new friend, Yael, whom we were lucky enough to meet by chance over dinner a few weeks ago. We are thrilled that Yael was willing to share her story and picture with us, and that Yael's grandmother, Roberta, was willing to help with the technical aspects of the submission process. We believe that everyone--of all ages--has a Plant Love Story to share, and we hope to see more PLS Kids! Submissions in the future!

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