Thursday, December 15, 2011

Look it's a mad scientist

No, it's David Kidwell-Slak transplanting germinated Box huckleberries , Gaylussacia brachycera. And showing me some impressively vigorous rhizomes. He's discovered that the most efficient way go germinate the seeds is in liquid. He actually puts the seed into the small jars, monitors them, and upon germination, transplants the small seedlings to cell packs. They prefer to start under the surface and push into the air so this is a somewhat complex procedure. Apparently germination is the weak link in the life cycle of this uncommon relict species.

It's a great plant, a beautiful evergreen ericacious subshrub whose foliage colors up for the winter. Growing in dry shade, it's native to the mid-Atlantic from Pennsylvania to Virgina and west to Kentucky and Tennessee. Not at all common, it occurs in, what had been thought to be, clonal colonies. I remember almost sensationalist articles from many years ago that estimated the ages of some of those colonies as up to or even over 10,000 years. Because these clones don't reproduce sexually each colony is essentially one plant making them among the oldest living "plants". The story even made it into newspapers and popular magazines. David isn't sure of those dates; apparently they were calculated by measuring the growth of the plant and extrapolating to the size of the colony. In the top picture he's showing me rhizomes, only a few years old, which could produce large colonies without the passage of thousands of years. The Arboretum has samples of plants from many stations and Margaret Pooler has co-authored an article on the clonal fidelity of these colonies. It turns out that all the colonies aren't composed of a single clone but sexual reproduction does seem to be minimal.

It's interesting, but I'm more a gardener than a scientist so I'm excited at the prospect of a garden worthy selection of two. Evergreen groundcovers for dry shade are at a premium so it'd be great to have this as an addition to the palette. Plus, for those of us in the mid=Atlantic, it'd be a native plant.

1 comment:

MulchMaid said...

More dry shade shrubs and plants: Yes! It IS interesting to hear a little behind-the-scientific-finding backstory, though.