Monday, May 7, 2012

Conspicuous Beauty

“Conspicuous beauty” surrounds us in this stage of spring. A soft green haze covers the tamarack swamps as their delicate needles emerge. The cries of loons finding mates and defending territories echo over glassy lakes. More subtle songs fill the forest every day as warblers migrate through or set up territories. New flowers peek out from every habitat and patch of sun.

Two of the wildflowers blooming now hold special places in my heart, with two very different styles. The white clouds of blossoms on serviceberry shrubs are the most spectacular. This member of the Rose family blooms synchronously, with 90% of the flowers of a tree opening within two to five days. As legend tells, this lovely bush earned its name because it blooms when the ground has thawed enough so funeral services can be held for unfortunate souls who died over the winter when the ground was too hard to dig.

The synchronous bloom also creates a bonanza for the small bees that pollinate it. Even though the nights are still chilly, bees can shiver to warm up their flight muscles, and their fuzzy coat helps to insulate them against frosty temperatures.

I first discovered serviceberry in a botany class. We only learned to identify it to genus – Amelanchier – because the species are notoriously hard to tell apart.  Of the twenty species in the genus, nine of them live in Wisconsin! I never learned it as a kid, because I grew up in the limestone bluffs of the Driftless Area, and serviceberry is not tolerant of calcium carbonate. It prefers higher acid soils like the sandy glacial outwash and igneous bedrock of this region.

Trailing arbutus, another favorite flower of mine, also likes acid soils and has white, five-petaled flowers. Its scientific name, Epigaea repens, which means “trailing upon the Earth” describes its growth habit perfectly. Although the trumpet-shaped flowers look and smell wonderful, it can be hard to find them among the thick mat of broad, oval, leathery evergreen leaves. Without a trained eye, it may be mistaken for wintergreen, a close cousin.

I first discovered trailing arbutus on a portage trail in the Boundary Waters during an early spring canoe trip. It cheered me up immensely after a few days of traveling in wet snow and high winds.  I am not the first to appreciate its early spring beauty – as legend tells, it was the first flower to cheer the hearts of the Pilgrim Fathers after the rigors of their first New England winter. This earned it the alternate common name of Plymouth Mayflower, and the honor of being the Massachusetts State Flower. One author described it as having “the fatal gift of conspicuous beauty” that led to it being dug up and sold in eastern cities in the 1900s.

While many people love it, and have tried to transplant it into gardens, trailing arbutus does not fare well with disturbance.  Like orchids and blueberries, trailing arbutus has a mycorrhizal relationship with fungus on its roots. The plant has almost no root-hairs, which in other species are key for increasing the surface area available to absorb water and nutrients from the soil. Fungal hyphae (fine root-like parts of a fungus) surround and penetrate root cells, which allows for an exchange of water and nutrients from the fungus, and sugars from photosynthesis in the plant. A study in the Harvard Research Forest found that 91% of plant species there had similar fungal friendships!

Spring is a wonderful time to enjoy both the conspicuous and the inconspicuous beauty of nature’s awakening.

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opens in May 2012. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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