Fall is bittersweet for avid botanizers but if you look around you, there are still flowers to be seen! Join us as we go in search of some of my favorite fall flowering species of Gentian.
Alpine and tundra zones are harsh habitats for any organism. Favorable conditions are fleeting and nasty weather can crop up in the blink of an eye. Whereas animals in these habitats can take cover, plants don't have that luxury. They are stuck in place and have to deal with whatever comes their way. Despite these challenges, myriad plant species have adapted to these conditions and thrive where other plants would perish. The intense selection pressures of these habitats have led to some fascinating evolutionary adaptations, especially when it comes to reproduction.
Take, for instance, the Arctic gentian (Gentianodes algida). This lovely plant can be found growing in alpine and tundra habitats in both North America and Asia. Like most plants of these habitats, the Arctic gentian has a low growth habit, forming a dense cluster of fleshy, narrow leaves that hug the ground. This protects the plant from blustering winds and extreme cold. From late July until early September, when the short growing season is nearly over, this wonderful plant comes into bloom.
Clusters of white and blue speckled flowers are borne on short stems and, unlike other angiosperms that readily self-pollinate under harsh conditions, the Arctic gentian requires outcrossing to set seed. This can be troublesome. As you can imagine, pollinators can be in short supply in these habitats. What's more, with conditions changing on a dime, the flowers must be able to cope with whatever comes their way. The Arctic gentian is not helpless though. It has an interesting adaptation to these habitats and it involves movement.
Only a handful of plant species are known for their ability to move their various organs with relative rapidity. This gentian probably doesn't make that list very often. However, it probably should as its flowers are capable of responding to changes in weather by closing up shop. It is not alone in this behavior. Plenty of plant species will close their flowers on cold, dreary days. What is so special about the Arctic gentian is that it seems especially attuned to the weather. Within minutes of an incoming thunderstorm (a daily occurrence in the Rockies, for example) the Arctic gentian will close up its flowers. This is done via changes in turgor pressure within the cells. But what is the signal that cues this gentian in that a storm is fast approaching?
Researchers have investigated multiple stimuli in search of the answer. Plants don't seem to respond to changes in sunlight, wind, or humidity. Instead, temperature seemed to be the only signal capable of eliciting this response. When temperatures suddenly drop, the flowers will begin to close. Only when the temperature begins to rise will the flowers reopen. These movements are quite rapid too. Flowers will close completely within 6 - 10 minutes of a rapid decease in temperature. The reverse takes a bit longer, with most flowers needing 25 - 40 minutes to reopen.
So, why does the plant go through the trouble of closing up shop? It all has to do with sexual reproduction in these harsh conditions. Because this species doesn't self, pollen is at a premium. The plant simply can't afford the risk of rain washing it all away. The tightly closed flowers prevent that from happening. Also, wet flowers have been shown to discourage pollinators, even when favorable weather returns. Aside from interfering with pollen, rain also dilutes nectar, reducing its energy content and thus reducing the reward for any bee that would potentially visit the flower.
Being able to rapidly respond in changes in weather is important in these volatile habitats. Plants must be able to cope otherwise they risk extirpation. By closing up its flowers during inclement weather, the Arctic gentian is able to protect its vital reproductive resources.
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There is something about gentians that I am drawn to. I can't quite put my finger on it but it definitely has something to do with their interesting pollination strategies. One of the coolest gentian species I have ever met grows in the mountainous regions of western North America.
Meet Frasera speciosa a.k.a. the monument plant (a.k.a. elkweed). It is only one of 14 species in the genus. This fascinating species (as well as its relatives) lives out most of its life as a rosette of large, floppy leaves. The monument plant is what is known as a "monocarpic perennial", meaning it lives for many years as a rosette before flowering once and dying. It has been recorded that some individuals can be upwards of 30 years old by the time they flower!
This reproductive strategy brings with it a specific set of challenges but yet, if balanced correctly, offers many advantages. For starters, if you only flower once in a life time, you best make it count. The good news is, if flowering events are rare and widely spaced, this is a good strategy for avoiding herbivores. Such an irregular reproductive lifestyle means that the likelihood of a flowering population getting munched on is greatly reduced.
The same goes for seeds. If setting seed is a rare and widely spaced event, the likelihood of seed predation is also reduced. This is what is known as predator avoidance behavior. While it is not quite understood how plants synchronize flowering (though environmental conditions do play a role), it has been found that, for at least some populations, it alternates in intervals of 3 and 7 years. In essence, each flowering event can be seen as mast event. This keeps the overall impact of any potential herbivores and seed predators to a minimum.
This synchronous flowering strategy can also be beneficial for insuring cross pollination. The flowers are large and seemingly quite attractive to many different species of pollinators. By flowering all at once, a population is offering a tempting bonanza for pollinators that ensures many visits to each flower, thus increasing the chances of reproductive success. Since each individual plant invests all of its collective energy into a single flowering event, more energy is allocated to producing flowers and seed than if it flowered year after year.
The interesting habits of this plant's lifestyle don't end there. Each plant is essentially a pretty awesome parent! It has been found that seeds that are buried under the decomposing remains of a parent plant not only germinate better but the resulting seedlings also have a much higher rate of survival. This is good news for two big reasons.
For one, the decomposing remains enrich the surrounding soil while also creating a humid micro climate that is very conducive to growth. Second, the fact that they all germinate and grow relatively close to the parent plant, means that the density of young plants closely mimics that of the parental population. If the seeds were to be dispersed great distances from each other, it would be much more difficult to synchronize a flowering event and to ensure sufficient pollination. This way, entire populations grow up together in this nursery made from the remains of their parents. This is such a cool genus and I hope you get the chance to meet one for yourself.
Further Reading:     
Blue is a strange color. This may seem like an odd statement yet, when you think about it, so few things in nature are truly blue. It is estimated that, of all the colors plants utilize to attract pollinators, blue only occurs in less than 10% of species. This isn't a pattern restricted to plants either. Blue is an infrequent occurrence throughout the biological world.
When it does appear, the color blue is usually the result of structure rather than pigment. The feathers of a bluejay, the wings of a morpho butterfly, and the sheen of a beetle's elytra - these blues owe their vibrancy to refracted light, not pigment. Without light, the crystalline cells responsible for the blue hue would appear dull brown. As light enters their structure, it is bent in a way that gives off blue wavelengths.
Plants have adopted this strategy as well. The berries of Pollia condensata use a similar crystalline structure that results in blue. However, there are true blue flowers out there. How have species with blue flowers managed to overcome the rarity of blue pigments?
The simple answer is that they haven't. There are no blue pigments in the floral world. Instead, plants utilize what can only be described as an evolutionary hack. Blue flowers obtain their color by doing something we all did in art class, blending pigments (similar to the one true black flower http://bit.ly/1FDmU8l). By producing varying amounts of anthocyanins (the pigments responsible for reds) floral cells are able to make blue flowers.
The anthocyanins can also be tweaked to appear blue. One way of doing this is through changes in pH. Blue petunias, for example, have a defect in the proton pumps found inside their flower cells. This causes the cells to become more basic than acidic, which manifests in blue, rather than purple, flowers.
Despite the lack of blue in the floral world, it nonetheless seems to work well when it comes to pollinators. I watched multiple different species of bee visit the flowers of this downy gentian (Gentiana puberulenta). Hummingbirds often visit the amazing floral display produced by the great blue lobelias (Lobelia siphilitica) in my garden. Anyone that has looked over a patch of blue lupine or delphiniums can attest to the success of this color.
Every plant enthusiast has a handful of species that they search high and low for any time they find themselves out and about. It may be a species you have seen a bunch of times or one your have only read about in the literature. Either way, the search image burns strong in your mind so that when you finally come across the species in question, it is like seeing a celebrity. For me, one of those species is Bartonia virginica.
It may not look like much. Indeed, it is a rather diminutive plant, barely poking its flowers out of the shadows cast by pretty much every other plant near by. However, when conditions are just right, this little gentian seems to flourish. With leaves that have been reduced to small scales that sheath the dainty stem in a couple places, all that really stands out are the tiny, cream colored flowers that cluster near the top. A close inspection of the flowers with a hand lens reveals the unmistakable morphology that runs true throughout the gentian family.
Whereas the stem of the plant does contain chlorophyll, it has long been suspected that this plant must rely on other means of obtaining carbon due to its highly reduced leaves. A paper published in 2009 by Cameron et al., was able to shed some light on this matter. As it turns out, there is strong evidence in support of B. virginica being partially mycoheterotrophic.
This is such a cool little gentian. I was so happy to have come across some. Sometimes it's not always the biggest or the showiest that make our day, but rather the subtle and unique.