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Plant ID: Himalayan Blackberry vs. Salmonberry Shrubs

Last Saturday, I did some invasive species removal with the Stanley Park Eco-Stewards. We removed Himalayan blackberry from some sites that had previously been cleared of invasive species and replanted with salmonberry shrubs. Because Himalayan blackberry is such a persistent plant – it, along with English ivy, is one of the most aggressive invasive species in Stanley Park – there were several spots in which it had grown back.

One of the most helpful things I learned during this eco-stewardship session was how to tell the difference between a Himalayan blackberry shrub and a salmonberry shrub – we wouldn’t want to be digging up the native salmonberry vegetation, after all! I’ll share with you some of the plant identification tips I learned.

Have a look at the picture below. It contains a Himalayan blackberry branch and a salmonberry branch converging with each other. Can you tell which is which?

Can you guess which branch belongs to a salmonberry shrub and which belongs to a Himalayan blackberry shrub?

If you guessed blackberry on the left and salmonberry on the right, you are correct! If not, don’t worry – let’s walk through it together.

First, let’s look at the colour and texture of the branches. The blackberry branch is green and thorny. The salmonberry branch is brown and smooth (Wild Berries of British Columbia tells me that younger salmonberry branches are prickly, and then they shed their prickles as they get older... I'll have to start paying more attention to these things!).

BRANCHES: notice the prickly green blackberry branch on the left versus the smoother brown salmonberry branch on the right.

Secondly, notice the leaf pattern of each. Himalayan blackberry leaves tend to consist of 5 leaflets, each of which round and then end in a point. Salmonberry leaves have three leaflets that are more angular in shape:

LEAVES: A Himalayan blackberry leaf (left) vs. a salmonberry leaf (right).

A good trick that Ivy, our Stewardship Coordinator, taught us: if you fold down the top leaflet of a salmonberry leaf, you get a butterfly!

 A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

Try the same trick with a blackberry leaf, and here’s what you get:

 Not quite a butterfly.

Not quite a butterfly.

It’s useful to note that there are exceptions to these identification rules. I’ve certainly seen some salmonberry branches (I think they are, at least!) that are green…

 Green salmonberry branches

Green salmonberry branches

… some Himalayan blackberry canes that are reddish…

 Red Himalayan blackberry branch

Red Himalayan blackberry branch

… and some Himalayan blackberry leaves that have three leaflets (though note that the overall leaflet shape is much rounder than that of a salmonberry leaflet):

 

 A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

But hopefully sticking with the aforementioned guidelines will help you to identify these shrubs. Happy plant ID-ing! For those readers with a little more nature expertise, please let me know in the comments if I've made any mistakes.

Fern Identification 101

I’ve been pretty amped about ferns since I discovered that their young springtime leaves are fiddleheads (see my previous post). One important lesson that I learned from my fern research is that it’s important to be able to identify different species of ferns. That way, if you ever want/need to go foraging for fiddleheads in the deep woods, you can choose a type of fiddlehead that is safe to eat.*

 A ladybug on a lady fern!

A ladybug on a lady fern!

*Quick note: From the reading I’ve done, the lady fern seems to be the species in my region most cited as edible, and the bracken fern is the one most cautioned against, as it has been linked with instances of stomach cancer. However, as my knowledge of nature is quite newly acquired (not to mention that I've never actually eaten a fiddlehead) don't take my word for it! If you want to get into foraging, it’s probably best to chat with someone who is knowledgable about wild edibles. Check the resources page (coming soon!) for more info.

Anyway... last Saturday, I gave myself a fern identification assignment at Stanley Park. You can try it out too if you live close to the park, or adjust it to suit your location. Here are the materials I took with me:

  • Native Plants of Stanley Park list – click the link to download the PDF from the Stanley Park Ecology Society website
  • Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, 2004 ed.), a compact and comprehensive nature guidebook. The Vancouver Public Library has many copies. This book has a good section on ferns on pages 417-427.
  • a digital camera to grab some snapshots of the different ferns
  • a notebook and pen to make some rough notes about the location and frequency of the ferns

Before I went to the park, I had a look at the Native Plants of Stanley Park list and underlined all the ferns I could find. Then I counted my underlined items and found that there were seven types of ferns listed. Good, I thought – seven is a reasonable scope!

Next, I flipped to the ferns section of Plants of Coastal British Columbia and got acquainted with those seven types of ferns. I made note of the general leaf shape and pattern of each fern. I also tried to see which ferns I could definitely distinguish from the others and which ferns I might confuse. For example, I knew that maidenhair ferns would be easy to identify, as they have long, thin, lacy leaves that look pretty distinct. The bracken fern, lady fern, and spiny wood fern would be harder to identify, as their leaves all looked similar in the photos. Similarly, the deer fern, sword fern, and licorice fern seemed to have a similar type of leaf.

 Here's a card I made to learn the shapes of the different fern leaves. The images are photocopied from  Plants of Coastal British Columbia .

Here's a card I made to learn the shapes of the different fern leaves. The images are photocopied from Plants of Coastal British Columbia.

Then came the fun part – a fern scavenger hunt at Stanley Park! I checked out the plants along the seawall first (I walked counterclockwise from the park entrance to Third Beach), and the first ferns that I noticed were sword and bracken ferns.

Sword ferns have leaves that are attached with a little stalk to the central stem. Their leaves make a little upward-facing point right before the stalk, as though they’re giving you a thumbs up (and therefore telling you that you identified it correctly!). At this time of year, the central part of the sword fern contains a combination of curled, brown, hairy shoots and new leaflets that are starting to uncurl, like they’ve just been let out of hair rollers. Many of the plants have a combination of older, dark green growth around the edges and newer, lighter green growth toward the middle. I’ve noticed sword ferns growing everywhere in Stanley Park – they are quite common.

 Left: a sword fern hanging out in the forest. Right: some hairy sword fern fiddleheads and curly leaflets unrolling in the sunshine.

Left: a sword fern hanging out in the forest. Right: some hairy sword fern fiddleheads and curly leaflets unrolling in the sunshine.

 A close up of a sword fern leaf. Look in the circle... can you see the little stalk and upward point at the inner end of the leaflet?

A close up of a sword fern leaf. Look in the circle... can you see the little stalk and upward point at the inner end of the leaflet?

Bracken ferns weren’t as difficult to identify as I first thought. They are different from the other ferns in that they have a single stalk that grows from the ground. There are branches from this stalk that hold the leaves. The lady fern and spiny wood fern have leaves that are similar to the bracken fern, but in these plants, each leaf grows from the ground on its own stalk. So you have a cluster of stalks in the ground (lady and spiny wood) versus a single stalk in the ground (bracken).

 LEFT: The bracken fern grows from a single stalk (see white arrow). RIGHT: Behold the beauty of the bracken fiddlehead - but DON'T eat it!

LEFT: The bracken fern grows from a single stalk (see white arrow). RIGHT: Behold the beauty of the bracken fiddlehead - but DON'T eat it!

A bit further down the Seawall, I came across some lady ferns. Lady fern leaves are diamond-shaped (with a pointed top, leaflets getting wider in the middle, and leaflets getting increasingly shorter toward the base). I also caught sight of a few spiny wood ferns between the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Third Beach. Spiny wood ferns look quite a bit like lady ferns, but their leaves have an overall triangular shape as opposed to a diamond shape. They also have lots of furry brown matter near the bottom of their stalks – they have hairier legs than the ladies, that’s for sure!

 The  lady fern  on the left has a leaf that expands near the centre, then tapers toward the bottom. The  spiny wood fern  on the right has a more triangular shape

The lady fern on the left has a leaf that expands near the centre, then tapers toward the bottom. The spiny wood fern on the right has a more triangular shape

Once I got to Third Beach, I walked into the park and onto Merilee’s Trail. It was there that I finally found a deer fern (I had been antsy to see deer fern for awhile at this point, as I was desperate to compare it to a sword fern). The two are actually much different than I expected them to be. The leaflets of the deer fern are attached to a central stalk all along their bases (whereas the sword fern has that little “thumbs up” stalk at the end of its leaflets). Whereas the sword fern leaf is shaped like a tall, slender triangle (gradually widening from the tip to the base), the deer fern leaf widens for awhile and then dips inward toward the base. Also, the deer fern seemed to have a thicker, more leathery texture than the other ferns.

 The  deer fern  on the left has a more leathery feel than the leafy  sword fern  on the right.

The deer fern on the left has a more leathery feel than the leafy sword fern on the right.

 A deer fern. Notice that the unfurling spiny leaves in the middle look different from the other leaves - I found out during a guided nature walk that these spiny leaves are the part of the deer fern that is responsible for reproduction. The leaves look like waxed moustaches on a stalk!

A deer fern. Notice that the unfurling spiny leaves in the middle look different from the other leaves - I found out during a guided nature walk that these spiny leaves are the part of the deer fern that is responsible for reproduction. The leaves look like waxed moustaches on a stalk!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any examples of maidenhair ferns or licorice ferns on this walk – these are the remaining two ferns on the Native Plants of Stanley Park list – but I’ll keep my eyes peeled for them in the future.

Happy fern hunting, everyone… I hope you enjoy the variety of personalities in this plant family as much as I do!