A Circumboreal Butterwort

The name "butterwort" may sound quite silly to most but those who have seen one in person can attest to the fact that there is nothing silly about the group of plants this name has been given to. Hailing from the genus Pinguicula, my favorite butterwort is Pinguicula vulgaris.

Referred to as the common butterwort, this species is sometimes hard to find if you live in North America. It has a circumboreal distribution and seems to be much more common in Europe and parts of Russia. Like all butterworts, P. vulgaris is a carnivore, though at first glance this may not be very obvious. The fleshy rosette of leaves are covered in mucilaginous glands that trap hapless insects. The leaves will sometimes roll in along the edge to pool the digestive juices around their prey.

Unlike more familiar carnivorous plants that can be found in acidic soils, P. vulgaris is a calciphile. It is most often encountered in fens, alvars, and other areas with limestone bedrock and alkaline waters. These types of habitats pose a different set of challenges for plants when it comes to obtaining nutrients. Phosphorus becomes bound to sediments in these alkaline conditions and research has shown that most butterworts respond best to supplemental phosphorus additions, though other nutrients like nitrogen are absorbed from prey as well.

If their carnivorous habits weren't interesting enough, the flowers of P. vulgaris (and all butterworts for that matter) are gorgeous. Sitting atop long stalks, the spurred blooms are a deep shade of violet. The nectar spur suggests that this species is pollinated by either long tongued bees or butterflies. Either way, they are presented well above the sticky leaves to reduce the chances of the plant eating the insects it needs for pollination.

Like all plants in the northern hemisphere, P. vulgaris needs to deal with winter. As temperatures and light levels begin to drop, P. vulgaris reverts to a cluster of buds called a hibernaculum. It has no roots and can easily blow around if exposed. This may serve to transport plants into new locations. Due to rampant habitat destruction, this plant is quite vulnerable in North America and threatened or endangered in many parts of its range.

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In my opinion, the smaller a plant is, the more character it has. Wall rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria) is a wonderful demonstration of this. The genus of ferns to which it belongs, Asplenium, is rather large, containing somewhere along the lines of 700 species worldwide. 

Wall rue can be found growing both in North America and Europe. Its distribution is a reminder of the great land bridges that once connected the continents back when ocean levels were much lower than they are today. The specific epithet "ruta-muraria" roughly translates to "bitter herb of walls." Along with its common name, these seem to hint at where this tiny fern likes to grow. Indeed, at least in Europe, this is a fern of stone walls, growing among the myriad cracks and crevices where microclimates are favorable for its spores to germinate. 

In North America, however, wall rue seems to be a bit more picky. Wall rue is a calciphile meaning it can really only be found in abundance on natural limestone outcroppings. As a result, it is considered a threatened or endangered species throughout most of the continent. The aspect of its habitat I find most interesting is that the limestone it relies upon is the result of an ancient sea that covered parts of North America during the Silurian Period some 443.8–419.2 million years ago. If it were not for the solidified remains of ancient marine organisms, wall rue and many other plant lineages would not be here, at least not in the way in which we know them. 

Another interesting aspect of wall rue biology is that this little fern is helping paleontologists in Europe discover potential glacial refugia - ice free areas where plants and animals were able to survive during the height of glaciation. Refugia were likely epicenters of biodiversity, which expanded to recolonize the continents once the ice sheets receded. 

Wall rue, as well as other rock ferns in the genus Asplenium occur in two forms in nature - a diploid form with two sets of chromosomes and a polyploid form containing multiple sets of chromosomes. Polyploids arise from mutated diploids and can be found growing over a wider range than their more restricted diploid parents. By studying the relatedness of different diploid populations, researchers are able to deduce where some glacial refugia may have been located. In this way, these tiny little ferns are offering a rare but clear window into the Earth's long gone past. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]