Updated: Feb 12
Here's a new nature series just in time for spring..."Earth Plants". Formally known as geophytes—geo for Earth, phyte for plant—most people just call them bulbs. Which is too narrow a term, just as Earth plant is too broad, hence the need for a whole series on them. That and the fact they make for colorful pictures, especially after the long brown and white seasons of fall and winter. And here is our first geophyte to show its head, one of the very earliest flowers in this part of the world: bulbous springparsley. What makes this plant burst so vigorously from the ground so early in the season in such a bleak and harsh environment? Its big, fat carrot-family root, more specifically a "stout, thickened, often bulbous, fibrous taproot" as described in "A Utah Flora".... so, not a bulb at all, but it does the same thing.
Part 2. Showy yet subtle, pink funnel lily, aka wild hyacinth, aka small-flowered androstephium manages to stand out but blend into its habitat at the same time. In the bright light of the adobe desert, about the only way to see it is to look for the dark green, 6" long strips that are its leaves. They're only around for 2 months though, before retiring from their brief career of photosynthesis. The fruits of their labors fuel the blossoms that draw the bees that cross-pollinate the flowers that produce the genetically robust seeds. And the other priority for the photosynthates? Filling the gas tank, of course! In this case that means converting the sugar to starch, and packing it into the corm cells' amyloplasts... the corm being the spherical, underground section of plant stem we call a bulb. This has been such an effective strategy for desert survival, wild hyacinth inhabits deserts across the American West.
Part 3. Gunnison's Mariposa lily here, looking big and beautiful, especially if you're a bee. Probably the very essence of beauty by their standards, with the radial symmetry and all, the yellow and purple bulls-eye, and more if we could see into the UV end of the spectrum like they can. And the yellow nectaries up the ante, with drops of sweet nectar that gild this lily and make it irresistible. Even its genus name—Calochortus—means beautiful grass. Why so much emphasis on beauty for a plant that can't even see, and spends most of its life underground as a bulb? Well obviously, it must be important for survival. What's really dazzling here is that these flowers are competing for picky insect pollinators, and in trying to outdo each other and nail down what is most appealing to a bee, they've written the recipe for bug aesthetics into the double helix of their DNA, codon by codon. It doesn't get any more beautiful than that!
Part 4. Glacier lilies look like they glow with an inner fire on a cold misty day up in the aspens. They walk a fine line, so to speak, trying to stand out, but not get the wrong kind of attention. They need those super showy flowers to attract the bees, but then they don't want the deer to wander over and graze their tops. Or even worse, the bears who love their fleshy bulbs, and have the claws to dig down the 4-6" and pull them up. It's a game of chance out there in the woods, with the glacier lily always trying to improve the odds, whether by being early, shooting out of the ground as soon as the snowbanks recede, or disappearing back underground a few weeks later after making their big splash (of yellow) in the woods.
Part 5. Wild Iris, beloved by gardeners, not so much by range managers around here... they’re a sign of overgrazing. Unlike glacier lilies, these geophytes are definitely not palatable. Something about the chemicals they synthesize... a common theme and recurring question with plants: is it worth the extra energy and resources it takes to add in some foul flavoring? It will set them back in their race with the other plants for light, water, nutrients. But throw cows, deer, elk, sheep into the mix and you can see the gamble pays off!
So they're not just pretty spring flowers after all! Each one of these adds its own special twist to the geophyte lifestyle. And, as it turns out, this lifestyle isn't a sole proprietorship kind of thing. It hasn't been patented by any one plant or even plant family, for that matter. In fact, several families have stumbled across it in their quests to figure out winning strategies. Respectable, upstanding families like the Apiaceae, the Asparagaceae, the Liliaceae, and the Iridaceae have each discovered and embraced the approach. They come at it from slightly different angles, but the end result is the same. And if you think this is just a coincidence, that surely plants couldn't have that much agency in this world, here's yet another example: the ominously named death camas, from the family Melanthiaceae. The name is more than ominous, its descriptive, for every part of this plant is neuro-toxic with alkaloids like zygacine and toxic esters of zygadenine. Even the pollen contains these, spelling woe to all but the death camas miner bee.
As to the group, imagine the online dating profiles each of them might have—lots of photos of the pretty flowers, but little mention of the rest of their strange traits. After all, it's a weird existence: light-depending plants spending most of their time underground, poking their heads out briefly each spring when growing conditions are good, putting on a spectacular reproductive show, making a few seeds, and stashing the rest of their photosynthetic earnings in their tubers, bulbs, corms, or roots. And the lengths they go to protect it all... some of them getting downright murderous. Talk about convergent evolution—there are people out there living this very same lifestyle!
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