Refuge in a Flower and its Bee
Prologue: Longtime readers may know of my fondness for Fen Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca). Every year I seem to discover something new about this elegant plant: its rare bee, for example, or its pollination antics. During casual research this year, I’ve been finding more than beauty and the bee. It is the subject of my latest essay for The Boston Globe, presented for you here.
As a research subject, object of beauty, and master of deception, it may be hard to beat Fen Grass-of-Parnassus.
Not a grass, this perennial plant features a rosette of leaves at its base from which an elegant stalk rises to display one of the loveliest and most duplicitous blooms of late summer.
The flower’s symmetry, with five pearly petals marked with sharp green stripes, and its alluring reproductive parts bring me literally to my knees. Day after day, regardless of rain or mosquitoes or my mood, I have been crawling around in order to study how Fen Grass-of-Parnassus, um, well, you know . . . gets it on.
Along the way, I’ve made two important observations. First, in this drama of reproduction, the plants at my study sites here in Vermont cavort with a bee found nowhere else but in the company of Fen Grass-of-Parnassus. More important, in my own cavorting with Fen Grass-of-Parnassus, my modest study has become a kind of meditation on beauty and the unruly pace of life.
Curiosity drove me to these plants. I wanted to understand the lengths to which the flower’s male parts, its five stamens, go to offer pollen to that rare bee, whose given name is Parnassia Miner. What I’ve been finding so far is that on most days only one of the five stamens participates in the mating game. It lengthens and positions itself so that the bee picks up pollen and then flies off to unwittingly deposit some of it on the female part, the pistil, of another flower. After its single day in the limelight, the stamen retracts and another takes its place.
To get the most benefit from this one-stamen-per-day antic, the flower also employs subterfuge. It stations 15 yellow beads, resembling drops of nectar, to entice and orient the bee just right to foster the exchange of pollen from plant to plant. But those droplets, like shiny glass candy, are fakes. I have watched various ants, flies, and the bee in particular appear to fall for this ruse. (Genuine nectar is probably located at the base of these structures, called “staminodes.”)
In my more than 100 flower observations, I have also discovered that these stamen gyrations aren’t as predictable or orderly as I had expected. They proceed in no fixed order, for example, and sometimes two stamens per day make the pollination maneuver. So, like romance in general, it’s complicated. And that’s fine.
Like romance in general, it’s complicated.
By no means a botanist, I am driven by exuberant curiosity and inordinate beauty. During my daily visits with my study flowers, I have come to know their unique folds and flaws and tendencies. Each bloom is not merely a pretty thing but rather an ongoing story with a plot line and four major characters: the stamens, the pistil, the fake nectar, and the bee.
And in these flowery dramas I have discovered something else, something unexpected: respite. When I visit with Fen Grass-of-Parnassus there is no email inbox, no culture wars, no news from Ukraine, no routine daily worries or annoyances. Among these blooms I do not even turn my gaze toward other charismatic nature nearby: warblers calling overhead, for example, or intricate white orchids blooming at one of my study sites.
“To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me,” Edward Abbey wrote in his essay “Walking.”
If you ask me, to be alone with Fen Grass-of-Parnassus is to be blissfully nowhere else. A single flower is refuge from the daily fusillade of distraction. Nature is good for that. Like sex or chocolate, like the Bach cello suites or love for another person, a flower can be a genuine manifestation of joy and wonder and mystery.
Then again, sometimes a flower is just a flower — simply and objectively and forever beautiful.
Acknowledgments, Notes, and References
- Besides the flower itself, inspiration for this humble field project comes from the fine work of W. Scott Armbruster and colleagues, who published on another Parnassia species. Max McCarthy as well is doing groundbreaking work on Parnassia Miner and its favorite plant. Scott and Max kindly replied to a few of my questions about these plants and their bee.
- The middle flower in this post’s banner image has completed its five stamen gyrations. Only then (and never before in any of my study plants) does the pistil’s white stigma (dead center) emerge. It is a protection against self-pollination.
- My friend and colleague Steven Daniel first alerted me to this once-a-day (more or less) stamen maneuver — among my many gifts from this exquisitely talented botanist and all-around naturalist. The incredible field naturalist and botanist Grace Glynn and I began these stamen observations last year.
- Tracy Sherbrooke here in Vermont also watched Fen Grass-of-Parnassus flowers and pollinators day after day this year, recording data as well. Her results appear similar to mine. Thanks so much, Tracy!
- Those flower images with black backgrounds, indeed field shots, result from camera settings: a stopped down lens (usually f22 or f24) and front-of-the-lens lighting (Canon Twin-Lite on my 100mm macro lens). It also helps that Parnassia glauca‘s flower extends alone above the basal leaves by up to a foot or so. Each shot received standard PhotoShopping.
- Noteworthy research from China on sequential stamen movement and efficiency of pollen transfer.
- With some relevance to my findings, additional research from China on one-stamen-per-day and anther-anther interference.
- Finally, I’m also most grateful for Bragg Farm Sugarhouse & Gift Shop in East Montpelier, Vermont, whose maple creamees were welcome treats on my way home from field sites.
What I call a Day-0 flower. None of the stamen's filaments has elongated; the five anthers remain undehisced and tight around the pistil (not yet showing its stigma).
All five stamens, having completed their maneuvers, have retracted out of the way of the pistil, which now shows its four-parted stigma dead-center.
Previous Related Posts
A Flower's Gyrations
Last year's more detailed explanation of sequential stamen movement, which got me thinking about questions for this year's work.
A Rare Bee and Audacious Beetle
Along with the bee, I bring you a beetle that, when swallowed by a frog, proceeds to crawl out of the frog's butt unscathed.