“The Column I’d Never Thought I’d Write”
Monday, June 24, 2019
By MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen
When it comes to nature observation, I know I have my biases. I mean—we all do.
There are times when we become so engrossed in what we are looking for, we see little beyond it. When watching birds, it can be easy to overlook a fern fiddlehead unrolling, or to miss a population of springtails migrating. There is simply too much going on to observe it all—that’s just the way it goes.
At the same time, I try keep myself open to just about everything in nature. I like to think that I am never not into something—rather, I’m not into it yet. Some parts of nature might just take longer to appreciate. An example of this, for me, is flowers.
Falling for flowers
I have always had a distaste for things revered largely based on socially accepted aesthetic principles and judgments (this might have something to do with listening to Frank Zappa at an early age). Anyway, I put flowers in this category.
It’s not that I hold being pretty against a flower, but there has to be more—a tasty fruit, a cool association—to gain my appreciation. (What a flower snob I am!) Learning about a flowering plant through research can be enough to break this perspective. And yes, my new macro camera lens has helped morph my view of flowers (slightly).
Take the ubiquitous Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) for example. A member of the Dogwood Family (Cornaceae), this ground cover adds a delightful mix of green and white through the coniferous woods on the peninsula each spring. Bunchberry plants can be so numerous in an area that at times it may seem like a mini dogwood forest has formed a second canopy under the (relatively) giant spruce and pine trees.
Well, these little Bunchberry plants grow off a perennial woody rhizome (creeping rootstalk) and a single rhizome can send up clone plants with the potential to cover several yards of the forest floor. When you see a carpet of Bunchberry it may represent just a few individual plants! Now that is cool.
As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that Bunchberry flowers themselves aren’t white at all. The white you see are four bracts, which are structurally similar to leaves. The flowers themselves are tiny, green, and clustered in the middle of these bracts.
While taking a closer look at these blooms over the last few weeks it’s been impossible to ignore how plentiful ants are on Bunchberry. Whatever the attractant may be—odor, nectar, pollen, or those wacky bracts—ants are cool, and, if you ask me, it’s good to get them involved in creating the next generation.
Pretty pink lady’s slippers
It’s hard to think of a more aesthetically pleasing native wildflower than the orchid pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule), or PLS. In varying shades of magenta, lady’s slippers are fun to search for and a treat to find. (Near my home in St. George, I’ve seen them scattered along the Town Forest Loop trail off Kinney Woods Road, and along the roadside as well!)
As a rule orchids are cool, but PLS have a special mystique about them, given all the rumors of rarity, endangerment, and even extinction. (I was once told by someone that they were extinct, even though we were standing beside a small group of PLS.) Regardless, it’s best to leave any PLS you find alone.
You see, however pretty a PLS flower may be, the plant itself is dependent on a symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationship with a Rhizoctonia fungus. The plant provides sugars for the subterranean fungus in exchange for nutrients that the fungus can readily absorb.
PLS seeds contain no food tissue for its seedling and thus the plant’s success is completely dependent on an early connection with this fungus. This unification is required for the PLS to begin the years-long growth process before the plant produces a flower. There is a lot going on with that plant!
And then there is the starflower (Trientalis borealis) of the Myrsine family. An early season bloomer, this flower can be found along any trail and seemingly within any woods in St. George.
An internet search turned up little juicy information on this plant, other than that the genus name refers to the height of the plant (1/3rd of a foot). The starflower doesn’t produce nectar. Instead, it attracts pollen eaters to disperse its pollen.
Starflowers have a tall pistil (“female part”) in the flower’s center, surrounded by eight stamen (“male parts”). The stamen are arranged to maximize the distance between their pollen-producing tips (anther) and the Pistil tip (stigma), thus reducing the chance of self-pollination. A dorsal view of a starflower shows this formation as wheel or octopus-like. This view itself deserves some respect.
Giving in to flower power
Upon finishing this column I’m starting to recognize that maybe I like flowers more than I knew.
I’ve always liked trees, as they are places for birds to nest and for mushrooms to grow underneath. It’s not like I have been anti-plant or anything. Come to think of it, carnivorous plants have a special place in my heart and those parasitic plants lacking chlorophyll are pretty awesome, too.
If from now on, I’m inspired to take closer looks at stamens and stigmas, well then so be it.
Of course, there is always something cool going on with each and every plant and species. But the bottom line is that it’s a flower’s job to be attractive. And there is nothing wrong with appreciating a job well done!
See you out there!
A version of this story originally appeared in Kirk’s “Nature Bummin’” column in The St. George Dragon.