Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Columbine Explosion!

Yes, another wildflower post. I know it seems like I’m posting an awful lot about wildflowers, which is odd, given that I’m really much more of a “tree guy” than a “flower guy”. But the flower landscape is changing so rapidly and dramatically around the 8,000 ft level in the Wasatch that it’s hard to notice almost anything else right now.

I’d planned to post about Columbines today, and intended to highlight them on a trail called “X trail” in Pinebrook. “X Trail” isn’t an “official” name; as my friends and I explored the Pinebrook trail network a few years back, we gave names to the trails we found so we that we’d be able to describe and discuss routes with each other.

I’d been noodling over how best to describe access to X trail, and procrastinating on the post for a few days, as the various twists and turns to get there would be tough to put in writing, but last night the problem was solved for me: the explosion has spread to the Mid-Mountain trail, which is easy to access either from the South End (Deer Valley), or up where we were on the Northern End, by The Canyons.

Most Tuesday nights in the summer I mtn bike with a couple of friends; we’ve been doing so for more than 10 years. Last night we did a ride we call “Up & Over”, that climbs up out of Mill Creek Canyon, crosses the crest into the Park City drainage, and descends to connect with Mid-Mountain trail, which we follow North into the Pinebrook network before returning. Right now the section of Mid-Mountain trail between The Canyons and Pinebrook is exploding with Columbines.

Aquilegia coerulea, the Colorado Blue Columbine is a classic “early summer” flower, appearing in early July, and practically disappearing from the Wasatch by August 1. It’s a super-cool flower for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s probably the most graceful/elegant/sexy wildflower in the Wasatch. Its dramatic profile makes it a cinch to identify, even from a distance. Second, it’s the best-smelling wildflower in the Wasatch. I’ve been going on and on about how beautiful the various flowers of the Wasatch are, but I haven’t talked much about smell, because most wildflowers have no real smell (at least not that we can detect) and when they do, it’s often not a very nice smell. Crushed Scarlet Gilia for example has a vaguely skunk-like odor. But Columbine has a scent sweeter than any perfume I’ve ever smelled. Often when alone on a trail I’ll skid my bike to a halt to sniff a Columbine.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed about Columbines is that they’re only good for 2 or 3 “deep sniffs” before the scent tapers off dramatically. It’s not an issue of sensitivity; if I switch immediately to another Columbine flower, the initial sniff is just as strong. But sniffing the same flower a few times somehow “sucks up” or diminishes the scent significantly. I don’t know whether the scent “comes back” after an hour/day/week or so; guess this is another future “experiment” I’ll put on my list.

The taxonomy of Columbines is complicated. The genus Aquilegia includes more than 60 species, and there are 5 distinct “varieties” of Aquilegia coerulea, the Colorado Blue Columbine, 4 of which occur in Utah. The Columbine along Mid-Mountain last night was overwhelmingly white, which makes me think it’s the variety ochroleuca, “White Colorado Columbine”. But the problem with Columbines is that they’re terribly promiscuous, and the various species and varieties hybridize like crazy.

Tangent: Aquilegia canadensis, the Western Red Columbine, also supposedly occurs in Utah, in the extreme North of the state. I’ve never seen it here, but saw several in California on our recent Mendocino trip (pic left).

Speaking of promiscuity, this leads us to another fascinating behavior in plants that we’ve mentioned previously only in passing, when we looked at Musk Thistle and Sagebrush: Self-Pollination, or Selfing.

In a plant with a perfect flowers (male and female parts in the same flower), selfing is always a risk, and many plants take active measures to prevent it, such as dispersing pollen from the anthers before the stigma can accept it. But other plants make use of selfing extensively, usng an opportunistic Dandelion-like either/or strategy to hedge reproductive bets. But selfing is very different than other forms of self-reproduction we’ve looked at, such as apomixis or cloning (via root or stem). Where apomixis and cloning can be described as asexual, selfing is really self-sexual, in that the full sex process works and is completed, but the same plant provides both pollen and ovule.

Tangent: One of the things that’s really hit me in writing this blog is the wealth of different ways plants have found to propagate without a partner. To be sure, some asexual reproduction occurs in many animals as well, but it’s nowhere near as common, nor found in so many different reproductive methodologies. And when I think about why this may be, my likeliest guess is the most obvious: Plants don’t move. And when you’re stuck in one place, it’s probably harder to find a partner.

The downside of selfing is inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression typically occurs in limited populations with a small gene pool and has been studied in all sorts of cases including plants, various animals, and specifically humans, including hemophiliac European royalty and two-toed Zimbabwean tribesmen. As a rule, out-crossing almost always works out better for sexual creatures than selfing, and in the case of Colorado Columbine Blue Columbine, the effects of selfing were studied in depth about 15 years ago. The net of the research on selfing in Columbines is that overall, when measured in terms of seed production, viability, germination and seedling survival, is that out-crossing is about twice as effective as selfing in the long-term. Some things are better done with a friend.

Tangent: Yesterday at work I was stuck on a series of phone calls for about a couple of hours non-stop. During this time a group of colleagues walked over to a nearby ice cream store for a snack, something we only do once every month or so. Later in the day, I was disappointed to learn I’d missed the excursion. Like selfing (or drinking), eating ice cream alone is OK, but it’s a lot more fun with friends.

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