The column I thought I’d never write

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Bunchberry

When it comes to nature observation, I know I have my biases. I mean, we all do. There are times when we become engrossed and see little beyond what we are looking at. These are not bad moments by any means. When watching birds it can be easy to overlook a fern fiddlehead unrolling, or to miss a population of springtails migrating. I accept this about me (and also about you) and feel comfortable with this understanding. There is simply just too much going on to observe it all.

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,” but rather that “I am not into that yet,” if you know what I mean. Just waiting for the hook, but in reality some parts of nature just take longer to get into. An example of this, for me, is flowers.

I have always had a distaste and distrust for things that are revered largely based on socially accepted aesthetic principles and judgments. Probably connected to 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 get 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 lens has helped morph my view of flowers.

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 that may 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 ends up 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—having ants associated as (potential) pollinators seems like a funky twist on the historical process of creating the next generation. Ants are cool, good to get them involved.

Pink Lady’s Slipper

It’s hard to think of a more aesthetically pleasing, native wildflower than the orchid Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), or “PLS.” With varying shades of magenta, Lady’s Slippers are fun to search for and a treat to find, 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 rich with 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 of where the truth lies, its 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. 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 it takes before the plant even thinks about producing a flower. There is a lot going on with that plant!

Starflower

And then there is the starflower (Trientalis borealis) of the Myrsine family. An early- season bloomer, this flower can be found abundantly along any trail and seemingly within any woods in St. George. And yet, an internet search turned up a little juicy information on this plant, other than that the genus name refers to the height of the plant (a third of a foot). The starflower doesn’t produce nectar, which itself is pretty cool. Instead it attracts pollen eaters to disperse its pollen, and a macro view shows how the flower is organized. 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.

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, so 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. I am starting to understand, though, that maybe flowers have moved out of the “not into yet” column for me. And that if part of this change is inspired by taking closer looks at stamens and stigmas, well then so be it. Of course, there is always something cool going on with each plant and species. But the bottom line is that a flower’s job is be attractive. And there is nothing wrong with appreciating a job well done!

See you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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