Thursday, June 3, 2010

Buttercups, Rain and Flying Dogs

Monday I met up with Coryalis and his Most-Excellent-Upgrade-Ever-Wife 2.0 (MEUEW2.0) to ride Flying Dog up by Jeremy Ranch. It was my first time riding the Dog this year, and barring a couple of muddy spots up top, it’s in fine shape. Here’s Coryalis zipping down a fun stretch (better if viewed in HD).

Tangent: A quick clarification regarding MEUEW2.0. Technically she’s Wife 3.0, but since 1.0 and 2.0 were the same person, I think of her as 2.0. And yes, she really is the Most Excellent Upgrade Ever, and all of Coryalis’ friends think so, but Coryalis would never say so directly, because that might possibly be construed as impugning Not-Quite-So-Excellent-Wife-1.0/2.0, and Coryalis is one of these super-nice guys who never, ever has a bad word to say about anyone.

Coryalis, BTW, has another friend- let’s call him “Karl”, who has a similar wife-upgrade story and experience, and who, like Coryalis, never ever maligns his Wife 1.0 because- again, like Coryalis- Karl never says a bad word about anyone either. Whenever I get together with Coryalis and Karl, neither of them says anything bad about anyone ever, which always makes me think a) that I am really somewhat of a cad for gossiping as much as I do, and b) what on Earth do these guys talk about anyway when I am not around?

Old Flower Revisited

IMG_5367Coryalis and MEUEW2.0 actually rode over the top twice. When I ran into them they were descending the East side, but had enjoyed it so much that I easily persuaded to turn around and ride it in the opposite direction (CCW) with me. On the climb up Coryalis told me about some small yellow flowers up IMG_5369top that sounded like Yellowbells, Fritallaria pudica, (pics left and right)which I blogged about 2 years ago, and then never saw once last year, so I was eager to check them out.

When we reached the top we stopped and looked around, and there they were. They’re pretty little lilies and they don’t seem to last long, so check them out while you can. The corms BTW, are supposedly edible.

New Flower!

IMG_5412 While I was poking around on my hands and knees checking them out, a teeny, different flash of yellow caught my eye. Looking more closely, I noticed several teensy-weensy little flowers (pic left) growing just an inch or 2 above the ground. Mostly (but not always) 5-petaled, but with a bulging, almost coneflower-ish, bright green center. I’d never noticed anything like it.

Side Note: I should emphasize just how small and, well, un-noticeable, this guy is. If I hadn’t been on my hands and knees, I never would have seen it. Flower Foot In fact on Wednesday morning before work I returned to snap a few more shots. When I did, I initially couldn’t find any! Finally after a good 5-10 minutes of crawling/poking around the same area, I found several more, but I think their blooms are short-lived, which coupled with their small size and low stature, makes them an elusive target.

IMG_5372 After 2 years at this project it’s rare that I spot a flower around the Wasatch I’ve never seen before. Oh, there are still flowers here and there I come across that I can’t yet ID, but I generally have a pretty good idea what kind of thing it is. But this one was a total stumper. When I returned home later I checked every flower guide I own and a couple of helpful ID sites, but couldn’t get it. Finally, I emailed my Botany-Blogging-Mentor, Sally over at Foothill Fancies. Sally quickly came through with the family Ranunculaceae, the Buttercup family, and a likely genus- Ranunculus, which includes all the buttercups proper (and a couple other things.)

Tangent: Unlike me, Sally’s been into plants for a long time, and has all sorts of experience and past education concerning them. So for her, the initial family/genus ID was a piece of cake. Me, on the other hand, 90% of what I know about plants I picked up in the past 2 years of doing this project, so oftentimes I lack any kind of baseline or context in making initial IDs. I’m sort of like a guy from another planet who just fell out of a spaceship 2 years ago, and is desperately running around trying to figure out what’s what in the world…

We’ve come across the Buttercup family several times, in looking at some of the most fascinating- IMG_5370and sometimes deadliest- flowers around, including Larkspur and Monkshood. More benign family members we’ve looked at include Marsh Marigold, Columbine, Western Clematis and Oregon Grape. They’re an interesting and varied family, with their members displaying a wide range of flower forms. Ranunculaceae is also an older family than many of the flowers you see in the Wasatch, such as the Rose or Sunflower family, first having appeared sometime in the Cretaceous.

Following up on Sally’s leads, I made the ID on my mystery-micro Buttercup: IMG_5442Utah Buttercup, Ranunculus jovis. The diminutive size and distinctive, finger-lobed leaves were the giveaways; the range and hairless stem supported the ID. The leaves are almost easier to notice than the flower itself. The flowers are usually 5-petaled, but like many Ranunculaceae flowers, the exact number varies; several I saw had 6, 7 or even 8.

Sally also shared with me a story about the pollination of Buttercups, a story that made sense out of an apparent anomaly I noticed when examining my photos back in the lab*. When I checked out some of my photos, I noticed that the inner portions of the petals of the flower seems to have a slightly darker-shaded circle superimposed upon them. I wondered if it were just a lighting/shading/photo issue…

*OK I don’t have like a real, official, lab. Remember, I used up the blog-budget on those stickers. No my 2 “labs”, as it were, are my dining room table, which AW makes me clean up every month or so, and my office at work, where, while I am on conference calls, I peruse photos and videos from AM rides and- on my desk- dissect flowers, seeds and cones I picked up along the way.

Buttercup ExpandO But Sally’s story, which I subsequently read about in detail, suggests that the shading is real, and has an important function- pollination.

Generally in this blog I’ve referred to plants as either wind-pollinated or “agent”-pollinated. Many plants are also water-pollinated, which I haven’t really blogged about only because I haven’t spent much time around aquatic plants. But in the real world, the lines between these mechanisms can get blurred. We’ve already looked at plants like Willows, whose ancestors appear to have switched mechanisms multiple times over the course of their evolution. We’ve also seen plants like Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany and Blackbrush, which seem to be primarily wind-pollinated, but maybe, sometimes, get “opportunistically” agent-pollinated. Buttercups have another cool, line-blurring pollination mechanism.

Side Note: All of these pollination mechanisms, BTW, have real science-y names, which I haven’t used only because I started blogging about pollination before I knew the proper names for the mechanisms. Wind pollination is anemophily. Water pollination is hydrophily. Together these 2 types are known as abiotic pollination. Agent pollination is biotic pollination, which is either entomophily, in the case of insects, or zoophily, in the case of vertebrates (birds, bats).

As you look at the flower, the central green IMG_5406blob is a whole bunch of unfused carpels, each bearing an ovule capped by a stigma. For pollination to occur, a little teeny bit of pollen has to wind up on a stigma, preferably from a different plant*. The many yellow stamens surround the central ovule-bulb. The nectaries, which provide a reason for insect-pollinators to visit the flower, are located under the stamens, at the base of the petals.

*Many Buttercups- like many other flowers- stagger ripening of anthers and stigma so as to avoid getting fertilized with their own pollen.

With me so far? If so, you may have already noticed the problem: the bee goes for the nectaries, and maybe the pollen (bees collect both) but even if just going for the nectaries, they’ll brush against the anthers. So far so good. But they’re not likely to brush against the stigmas. How does the pollen get to the stigma?

This is where the mysterious dark circle comes in. The outer, lighter portion of the petals has a glossy, water-repellent finish. When rain or dew lands on it, it runs down toward the base of the up-curved petal. The inner, darker portion of the petal has a duller, matte non-water-repellent finish; water just sits, and pools there.

Buttercup Finish Now when the bee accesses the nectaries, it brushes pollen against the petals, which the rain or dew subsequently washes down into a little pool at the base of the petals, up against the base of the carpels, the structural elements of the pistil, atop each of which sits a stigma-capped ovule. The pollen-laden water is lifted up the carpel via transpiration-pull (which I explained in this post), to the stigma. So the flower is rain-assisted, agent-pollinated.

Buttercup Dissect Rain-Assist This little flower, which I’ve probably passed hundreds of times over the last decade and a half without ever noticing, turns out to be this exquisite model of mutualism and hydro-mechanical engineering. I’m glad I stopped for a closer look.

Over the course of this project, time and again the coolest stories keep turning up from little things- dead bugs in the garage, pigeons in parking lots, lichens on rocks, and flowers spotted by accident. What started out as a half-amused observation- that every little living thing has an amazingly cool story- has by now become a core belief. At a time of life (middle age) when beliefs and hopes so often erode in the face of experience and cynicism, this one truth has brought me wonder, joy and inspiration. I didn’t know quite what I was looking for when I started this project, but I think I finally found it. Everything else is gravy.

Speaking of gravy, the ride back to the trailhead wasn’t half-bad either.

Special thanks to Sally, who over the course of this project has helped me out with various plant and ID questions about a zillion times.


KanyonKris said...

Little flower, big story.

While reading this post it occurred to me that pollination is a messy and poor way to distribute genetic material.

Reproduction is a high priority for all living organisms, yet plants rely on wind, water, bug, etc. to perform this vital function? It's like if humans had no libido and the only way they'd have kids is if male and female genitalia happened to touch.

Cloning seems simpler and easier, although it isn't as open to mutation, some potentially beneficial.

But still, pollination seems absurdly inefficient.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Kris, one thing your inefficiency comments seem not to consider is this: plants can't move.

So while yes, chasing down and copulating with a mate seems to waste less genetic material, if you're geographically separated and unable to change that, pollination doesn't seem a bad way to go.

Besides, if you think plants waste resources on pollination, think of all the motorcycles, leather jackets, drinks, cover charges, jewelry, perfume, flowers, dinners, and hours spent composing cheesy love ballads that are wasted on unrequited love (lust) in the human world.

Watcher said...

KKris- I too have marveled at the apparent chanciness of pollination. But it sure seems to work. This morning I noticed the cracks in my driveway were yellow with pollen run-off... sure is a lot of it.

Your line "...if male and female genitalia happened to touch..." sounds like an excuse a politician would make!

SBJ raises a serious point- the phenomenal level of risk involved in animals mating. Combat with competing males, vulnerability to predators, risk of disease... it seems amazing 2 animals ever manage to pull it off.

coryalis said...

It's fascinating to learn about some of the complex processes that make up the Living World. I've had many "wow" moments reading your blog and this one was no exception.

BTW - The super-nice guy thing is just a front. You've never seen me at work or when I'm watching Fox news.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Lest anyone forget just how hard males compete in the crapshoot that is passing on one's genetic material, there's this article on sexual selection.

BTW, what does it say about me that most of the science articles I read are the dumbed-down NYT/Economist versions? (Scientists studying my behavior would conclude that I subscribe to NYT/Economist via RSS, prompting a follow-on study as to why I subscribe to these and not Science or Nature, which, if pursued to its conclusion, would lead to a comprehensive analysis of human laziness as practiced by the archetypal lazy human.)

Bill said...

I'm new to your blog, and I really like it. Really, really interesting, and full of information. The Ranunculus family is one of the most interesting, and quite large, especially here in the east. Our most wonderful member, perhaps, is the marsh marigold (that you mentioned). Thanks, and I'll be sure to return to learn more about life in your neck of the woods (so to speak).