Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bunchberry: Fast Flowers in the Adirondack Park

One of the signature plants of the North Country is just starting to bloom: bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). This low-growing plant, which reaches towering heights of 2-8”, is actually considered a shrublet, and in many aspects it is identical to its more southerly relative the flowering dogwood.

Take a walk through almost any patch of Adirondack woods now and you are bound to see this striking plant. It’s four green leaves, with their gently curving veins, are smartly offset behind the four white bracts that are often mistaken as the plant’s petals. It’s only the diligent nature nut, who gets down on his hands and knees to look closely at the plant, who will see the actual flowers, for they are the tiny bits that form what the rest of the world thinks is the center of a white-petaled flower.

And it is these tiny flowers that have amazed and stunned the world of natural science. With the assistance of a good handlens, you can see the flowers up close. When closed, they look pretty unassuming, with four small greenish-white petals that come together at their tips. One of these petals has a awn, or a hair-lik projection, at its tip. So far, none of this is particularly impressive. What happens when that awn is touched, however, rocked the science world.

Bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, are some of this plant’s primary pollinators. As they fly from plant to plant, they brush against these hair triggers. With a speed that is unmatched by any other living thing, the petals burst open. At the same time, the stamen (part of the male reproductive structure) is driven forward by water pressure built up in its cells. Along the stamen are hinged structures containing the pollen. With a force that would pulverize any space ship at the launch pad, the pollen is flung upwards away from the plant and driven deep into the fuzzy hairs covering the unsuspecting bees. Completely unaware of what has happened, the bees fly off to the next plant and get peppered with more pollen while at the same time shedding some pollen from previous explosions.

The end result of all this pollen flinging is, hopefully, the production of small, bright red berries, which are terribly popular with a wide variety of wildlife. Spruce grouse, moose and veeries are among the many animals that frequently dine upon the lightly apple-flavored fruits. Even people can eat them, and apparently bunchberry jelly is a treat for those who go through the efforts to make it. In the 19th century bunchberries were popularly used to thicken plum puddings.

A denizen of cool, acidic soils, bunchberry cannot tolerate having its roots in dirt that exceeds 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, it can survive all but the most severe of forest fires. In other words, this is an ideal plant for our boreal forests.

If you miss seeing it bloom this week, fret not, for bunchberry continually reblooms throughout the growing season. Any time from now until the snow flies, if you find yourself walking past a cluster of dwarf dogwoods, hunker on down and give one of the plants a gentle poke. If you are lucky, you might witness a puff of pollen as the plant tries to enlist your finger in its quest to pass its genes into the future.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





3 Responses

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