A bumblebee pollinates the flower of shy maiden, which will turn upward soon afterward. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

A bumblebee pollinates the flower of shy maiden, which will turn upward soon afterward. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

On the Trails: Flowers, showy and otherwise

The spring and summer flower show at Cowee Meadows (way out on the Point Bridget Trail) is always a treat, and the broad uplift meadows on the other side of the creek contribute to the show. Juneau is lucky to have this place, partly state park and partly owned by others.

Thousands of pink shooting stars start off the big show, followed by acres of irises and buttercups, and then fireweed. Those are just the abundant showy ones — the area really holds a terrific diversity of flowers. Over the years, flower-spotting trips down the trail and through the meadows have yielded counts of 60 or 70 species in flower. Sometimes, we even find one or two that we’d not spotted before. In fact, on a recent visit, a very small, inconspicuous plant (probably American brooklime or speedwell) right next to the trail was somehow overlooked by everyone in the group except the last one in line.

A view of the flower show at Cowee Meadows. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

A view of the flower show at Cowee Meadows. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

A splendid place! But it is so easy to be pleased with the big show that some small, inconspicuous flowers get neglected. Inconspicuous, and probably interesting in some way, although it turns out that the natural history details for many of them have apparently not been studied well. However, here are two examples with a bit of detail, from along the wooded part of trail:

• Enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea alpina) — The tiny flowers offer minute amounts of nectar, usually early in the morning. Nectar is sought chiefly by small flies that crawl over the flowers and pick up pollen on their bodies. They may carry the pollen to another flower nearby, as several flowers on the same inflorescence may be open at the same time, or to another plant, thus achieving some outcrossing. However, in cold or inclement weather the flowers may not open at all and they often self-pollinate. When a fruit is produced, it bears hooked hairs that assist in seed dispersal, perhaps on the bodies of passing small animals. Circaea seldom grows more than a few inches tall and often makes a thick cover over the ground for a square meter or more. This is a widespread species with potential natural history variation among populations in different geographic regions and apparently it can hybridize with other species of that genus.

• Single delight or shy maiden (Moneses uniflora, formerly Pyrola uniflora) — The single, nectar-less flower is typically buzz-pollinated by bumblebees; vibrations caused by the buzzing bee loosen the pollen, which falls onto the bee’s body and may be transferred to another flower or carried back to the nest for bee larvae. Different parts of the flower have different scents, and perhaps the scents of the pollen-containing anthers helps attract the attention of bees. An un-pollinated flower hangs demurely downward (hence the name of shy maiden), but after pollination the flower swings up and faces outward. The seeds are tiny and dust-like; the upward orientation of a pollinated flower would expose the opening fruit to possibility of some little breeze carrying the seeds away. But they probably don’t go very far, because the plant is very small and down in the understory; the plants commonly spread vegetatively. This species is one of many that are partially heterotrophic, dependent on symbiotic, mycorrhizal fungi for large portions of the necessary carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients. The fungi connect roots of these plants to neighboring plants, allowing transfer of nutrients among different species. Different symbiotic fungi make these associations in different geographical regions.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on out there and along the wooded trail than making flowers for us to count.

Enchanter’s nightshade flowers are visited by a very small fly. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

Enchanter’s nightshade flowers are visited by a very small fly. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

On a good day, it’s fun to watch bumblebees work the iris and geranium flowers, sipping nectar and carrying pollen. At the “right” time, there can be toadlets dispersing from their natal ponds. Listen to the savanna sparrows and look for kingfishers along the creek. Look for the very rare white geraniums and white irises. Smell the sweetgale, which typically has male and female flowers on separate plants, and look for the rare female individuals.

Ask some questions: do the frothy shelters of spittlebugs occur more often on particular species of plant? Check out the numerous big white inflorescences of cow parsnip for small visiting insects and observe what they do there. Inspect the flowers of different individuals of beach greens and find out if they are all alike or if some are different—online sources suggest that the species is “subdioecious,” with most individuals being chiefly male or female. But our field guides make no mention of this and the plants I’ve inspected in the field look like they have hermaphrodite (male and female) flowers. To be resolved…

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” appears every Wednesday in the Juneau Empire.

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