When I Looked Around, I Saw A Carpet Of Low, Green Plants On The Forest Floor And Trunks Of Varying Sizes Rising Up Around Me On All Sides. Away From The Creek, The Only Sound Was Birdsong Echoing Off The Hillsides. The Trail Was A Dirt Line Through A Rich, Green, Herbaceous Floor, And Compared With The Scale Of The Trees, I Was A Very Small Creature Moving Through The Forest. I Felt Like A Hobbit, On A Mission To See The World As Much Of It Used To Be Before.
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But The World Has Changed Irreversibly. Although Ramsey’S Draft Is Now An Officially Designated Wilderness Area, And One Of The Places In The East Least Manipulated By Humans, An Introduced Plant Grows Throughout The Floodplain. Luckily For Me, Though, This Plant Is Wineberry, And Its Berries Happened To Be Perfectly Ripe On This Weekend. The Wineberry’S Latin Name Translates As “Blackberry With Purple Hairs.” It Was Purposefully Introduced From China And Japan In 1890 As Breeding Stock, And It Is Delicious. As I Walked, I Plucked And Ate. My Actions May Have Been Irresponsible, However, For The Seeds From The Berries Can Be Spread By Birds Or By Humans, And There Was No Port-A-Potty Where I Was Headed.
The Most Abundant Plant On The Forest Floor Was A Wood-Nettle. These Are Edible Too, But Must Be Cooked First, So I Didn’T Nibble On Them. Cree Indians Call Them Masan, Which Means “One Who Itches.” In Their Legend, Nettles Once Had Golden Shimmering Leaves And A Bright Aura, But Humans Took Them For Granted And Paid Them No Respect. So The Plant Turned Green To Blend In With Other Plants And Grew Stinging Hairs To Get The Humans’ Attention. Now We Pay More Respect To Masan.
Stinging Nettles Grow About Knee High And Cause An Intense Burning Sensation If They Hit Bare Skin As You Brush Past Them On The Trail. The Structure Of The Nettle’S Stinging Hairs Has Been Well Studied. Enlarged, They Look Like Fine Glass Needles With Rounded Tips Sitting Atop Pedestals. Like Glass, The Hairs Are Made Of Silica And Are Brittle. When A Passing Hiker Brushes A Hair, The Rounded Tip Breaks Off And The Sharp Point Of The Needle Penetrates The Skin. This Alone Would Probably Be Irritating, But What Happens Next Accounts For The Nettle’S Bad Reputation: Chemical Compounds Stored In The Hair’S Base Are Injected Into The Skin Via The Needle. These Chemicals Burn.
I Mean No Disrespect To The Cree, But As A Plant Ecologist, I Interpret The Stinging Hairs As An Adaptation To Prevent Being Eaten By Animals. Research On This Has Shown That Whether Or Not An Animal Will Eat Nettles Mostly Depends On The Size Of The Animal. Their Leaves Are A Favored Food Source For The Caterpillars Of A Number Of Butterfly Species. The Adult Butterfly Lays Her Eggs On The Nettle Leaves, And The Caterpillars Feed On The Nutritious Leaves After They Hatch. Because Many Animals Avoid The Leaves, These Caterpillars Enjoy A High Survival Rate. And They Are Small Enough To Avoid Coming Into Contact With The Tips Of The Stinging Needles As They Feed. Many Humans, If Given The Opportunity, Would Wave A Magic Wand To Rid The World Of Nettles, But Without Them We Would Be Without Many Butterflies, Too.
Snails And Slugs Also Rely On The Nettle Leaves For Food. The Glasslike Hairs Have Been Found In Snail Feces, But We Don’T Know How These Mollusks React To The Hairs, Either On Their Way In Or On Their Way Out.
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