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For some, curiosity never quite satisfied; An outdoors quest for answers

Clusters of red capsules adorn the branch of this prickly-ash. When ripe, the fruit will turn black. Keith Corliss

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a familiar patch of woods on the edge of town looking for birds (imagine that). Birding ended up being quite slow which afforded me time to take careful note of the varied plant life nearby. While checking out the array of different leaves in one particular thicket, I noticed clusters of small reddish fruit hanging from a tree I thought I knew well, prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum). I guess I didn't. So surprised was I to find these tiny capsules, that I had to be certain it was actually attached to this species of tree and not something more exotic.

I walked away shaking my head. After all, I had taken a woody plants class while attending NDSU and thought I remembered quite a bit from this highly informative semester. Granted this was over 30 years ago so I started to wonder if it was just an age thing, the accelerating trickle of data that seems to leak out of our heads as we get older.

It was then I noticed a strong, almost lemony odor. I sniffed around a little and found the source, my hand. With my curiosity heightened even more, I simply had to go back and investigate this small tree I knew but didn't know.

Some weeks ago I received a photograph of mushrooms from a friend who lives on a farmstead northeast of Moorhead. He wanted to know what kind they were and if they were edible. The photo depicted not just any mushrooms, no, these were delicious oyster mushrooms. I drove out to his place and harvested the fresh cluster, assuring him they were good to eat (warning: never eat mushrooms without absolute certainty you know what you have). Graciously, he gave me some which I immediately took home, cut up, and sautéed in butter. Heavenly.

Just this week I got an email from a friend and former co-worker with photographs attached. Her son had seen some plants while hiking and wanted to know what they were so he snapped some shots.

Fortunately, I knew what both of them were. One was of jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum), a fairly common herbaceous plant of shaded forest floors with a spectacularly complex flower in early spring. The photograph, though, was of its seed cluster, the flower having disappeared weeks ago.

The other plant was wooly mullein (Verbascum Thapsus). A lot of rural kids are familiar with this one as it produces a very tall and stout stalk in its second year (it's a biennial) worthy of mock sword fights and spear-throwing contests. I also relayed to the mother that the seed stalk of this Old World invasive plant was a good substitute for a torch, as kids have been known to soak the end in gasoline and light it. This is the sort of thing that constituted entertainment in pre-Internet, pre-video game, pre-cell phone generations. Anyway I doubt she passed that little tidbit on to her son.

It's satisfying to realize there are others out there with a burning, child-like curiosity, a fascination with things in the wild that screams to be fulfilled. Whether it's birds or other critters, plants, rocks, insects, or whatever, there are elements in the landscape that many of us seek to know more about. It's a never-ending desire to be informed, to fill that gap in our understanding, to find answers to questions brought about by nothing more than a stroll through the outdoors. Maybe it's akin to an OCD-like affliction; that shiny object in the distance simply demands further investigation. Whatever it is, I've got it. It's refreshing to know I'm not alone.

Whether I had once learned the details surrounding the strange thorny tree called prickly-ash or not is moot I guess. The point is I know now.

Further investigation revealed that, yeah, the fruit and the leaves are highly aromatic; in fact it's the most northern species in the citrus (Rutaceae) family. As many times as I have thrashed my way through thickets of prickly-ash, I cannot recall smelling the Hawaiian Punch-like aroma. If I did, I never associated it with the shrub. I will now.