Moonwort Madness in the Rocky Mountain Region

Botrychium lineare.
Botrychium lineare, a Sensitive species of moonwort in the Rocky Mountain Region. Plant is about 3 inches tall. Photo by Kevin Kovacs.

Botrychium lineare.
One of the new species of moonwort discovered by the Forest Service. Plant is about 3 inches tall. Photo by Ben Legler.

Botrychium lineare.
One of the new species of moonwort discovered by the Forest Service. Plant is about 3 inches tall. Photo by Ben Legler.

Botrychium lineare.
One of the new species of moonwort discovered by the Forest Service. Plant is about 3 inches tall. Photo by Ben Legler.

Dr. Farrar photographing a new species of moonwort.
Dr. Farrar photographing a new species of moonwort on the Bighorn National Forest. Photo by Ben Legler.

Forest Service employees searching for and marking locations of moonworts.
Forest Service employees searching for and marking locations of moonworts on the Black Hills National Forest. Photo by Daryl Mergen.

By Steve Popovich *

Over the last 15 years, as Forest Service botanists in the Rocky Mountain Region combed National Forest Service land while conducting rare plant surveys, encounters of small, mysterious fern-like plants began to mount. The name of this interesting plant group is the moonworts (Botrychium, subgenus Botrychium). They are in the primitive adder's-tongue family (Ophioglossaceae). As time passed, more and more plants were discovered in project areas, and determining species identification and rarity proved problematic. It became clear that an all-out effort to clarify species and rarity was needed to make informed management and conservation decisions.

An annual workshop was created, modelled after those held in other regions and hosted by moonwort authorities Drs. Donald Farrar of Iowa State University and Cindy Johnson of Gustavus Adolphus College, and has been on going in the Rocky Mountain Region for a decade. The workshops teach field personnel how to survey for and identify moonworts. The sight of 40 attendees on hands and knees scrutinizing the ground and parting herbs and grass blades in search of moonworts has often drawn curiosity and interesting remarks from passers-by. The plants have a way of captivating and enticing one to look ever harder for them, and the addictive habit among those lured into the moonwort trap has been coined “Moonwort Madness.”

Thousands of hours have been expended in searching for more plants and hunting for new species across the forests and grasslands of the Rocky Mountain Region, and thousands of moonworts have been collected. Because of the dedicated labor of numerous Forest Service employees and partners suffering from "botryculosis," great strides have been made into our understanding of moonwort habitats, management needs, taxonomy, and rarity. Several new species have been discovered and other species have been re-aligned taxonomically.

In one instance, a new species was discovered in Colorado, and genetic analysis yielded enough information to allow us to search for one of its "missing" parents, which we knew must be another new species. What it would look like, its habitat preference, or if it were even present in the Rocky Mountain Region, no one could guess. Several years of searching across the region proved successful when last year the missing parent, indeed proving to be another new species, was found in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. What were the chances of finding a new species and then finding its new species parent somewhere, anywhere in the Rocky Mountain Region? Such a story can seldom be told.

Over a decade of work assessing the many moonwort collections, habitats, and ranges culminated in the creation of a revised moonwort key that reflects the many recent discoveries and proposed taxonomic revisions. It covers all moonwort species known to occur in the Rocky Mountain Region, and offers interesting discussion of the plant group's peculiarities. The key is the first ever to include in-line drawings (illustrated couplets) depicting important morphological differences between species, as well as life-size scanned images. These features better assist field personnel unfamiliar with moonworts and the identification process. The citation for this work is:

Farrar, D.R., and S.J. Popovich. Ophioglossaceae. In: Weber, W.A., and R.C. Wittmann. 2012. Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope, a Field Guide to the Vascular Plants, 4th ed. University Press of Colorado.

In the next few years, Dr. Farrar and I hope to complete a manual with a key covering all lands administered by the Forest Service, which should prove useful to those needing to identify and manage these interesting plants.


* Prepared by Steve J. Popovich, Acting Regional Botanist, Rocky Mountain Region (R-2). Forest Botanist, Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland
Fort Collins, Colorado. December 11, 2013.