Beetleweed

One of the many aspects I love about being in the mountains is that they seem to defy time. Not in any science fiction sort of way, but more in terms of seasonality. What I mean by this is that if a plant is done flowering at the base of the mountain, there is a good chance that it is still flowering closer to the top. This ability to rewind flowering seasons has been beautifully illustrated this month by beetleweed (Galax urceolata).

This lovely plant is a member of the family Diapensiaceae. It is the only species in that genus. When I first arrived in the Southern Appalachians a couple of weeks ago, most of the plants at low altitudes were nearly done flowering. I was a bit disappointed as I had never seen this species in person before. It didn't take long before the situation was remedied. 

The first trip up a mountainside revealed that plants midway up where just reaching full bloom and plants near the top were just beginning. Going up in elevation is a fun proxy for going up in latitude. Changes in microclimates mean plants are experiencing different cycles every few hundred feet. As such, this whole month I have been able to enjoy sequential blooming of a wide variety of plants simply by hiking up.

Galax urceolata is a beautiful plant. Get up close and the beauty is replaced by a rather mousy odor. There isn't much information on what is pollinating this species but my bet is on either flies or beetles. Recently I did observe a bumblebee briefly visiting an inflorescence but whether or not this was a one off remains to be seen. It is an evergreen plant, keeping its leaves all winter. The leaves turn from green to red as they fill with anthocyanin pigments. There has been a lot of discussion over the role these pigments play in the survival of this species. Some feel it is a way of protecting against harsh light. Evidence is showing the issue to be more complex than that. Though they probably serve many functions, the main purpose of these pigments may actually be to protect the plants cellular machinery from dangerous oxygen free radicals. 

Another interesting thing about this species is that both diploid and tetraploid populations exist and there is evidence that they segregate themselves by habitat. This very well could lead to speciation, rising the species count in this genus to two. For now, treating them as a single species is fine by me. It looks like I will get to enjoy these beautiful albeit stinky blooms for the rest of my stay in the mountains. 

Further Reading:
http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-0-387-77335-3_1#page-1

http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/galurc/all.html

http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=gaur2

An Endemic Houstonia

image.jpg

The weathered peaks of the Southern Appalachians are home to a bewildering variety of plant life. This region is thought to have provided refuge for many different types of flora and fauna pushed south by repeated glaciation. High humidity and precipitation coupled with a variety of microclimates has allowed plants to flourish and evolve over the millennia. In fact, a handful of species are found nowhere else in the world. One of these montane endemics is none other than a species of Houstonia

Some feel it best designated as a subspecies, Houstonia purpurea var. montana, whereas others feel that both morphological and reproductive distinctions deserve it a status as its own species, Houstonia montana. I prefer to refer to it as the Roan Mountain bluet. Either way, this unique little plant can be found  growing among rocky summits and balds on only a handful of mountain tops between Tennessee and North Carolina.  

This species requires disturbance to survive. Without the constantly shifting landscape characteristic of high altitude regions, this little plant would quickly be overtopped and outcompeted by more aggressive vegetation. This is not a lifestyle unique to this little bluet. Many of the worlds rare plant species require some level of disturbance to release them from competition with other more common plant species. Aside from competition, one of the largest threats to the continued survival is trampling by hikers. It is always important to watch where we hike. A little bit of attention can go a long way for our botanical neighbors. 

Photo Credit: BlueRidgeKitties (http://bit.ly/1dJ7SkA)

Further Reading:

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/1051-0761(1998)008%5B0909:PORPOA%5D2.0.CO%3B2

http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3159/1095-5674(2007)134%5B177:GOTRSA%5D2.0.CO%3B2

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10682-011-9539-x#page-1

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/4032597?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21106703459663

The Rosulate Violas

The rosulate violas of South America are amazing. Adapted to the harsh, windy environment provided by the mountains of Chile and Patagonia, these little plants are as tough as they are beautiful!

Photo Credit: Dick Culbert (http://bit.ly/1iv5WXr), Omskflower.ru, The Ecological and Environmental Change Research Group (http://bit.ly/1nlbknN), Christian Ostrosky (http://bit.ly/1jEslX7), Pato Novoa (http://bit.ly/SDQoMi , http://bit.ly/1jjT1Nh)