Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Snowdrops sometimes turn into trees?

Species name: Halesia carolina (=? Halesia parviflora)

Common name: snowdrop tree, little silverbells

Location: Western University campus

To say that this plant has "a bit" of confusion surrounding the proper Latin name would be an understatement. There isn't just a bit of confusion, there's a whole lot of confusion. Linnaeus (the grandfather of modern taxonomy) was the one that first described this species, and even he admitted later that based on his "vague" description of the species he might not recognize it if face-to-face with it again. I guess that doesn't say much; some of the first biologists interested in assigning proper names to every living thing on earth often gave two, three, sometimes even four separate names to the same organism after forgetting they had already described it and with no Google Images to make the task easier, I don't blame them!

When the original description of a species is somewhat vague and someone else comes along later describing that species and assigning a new name, sometimes this new name becomes the official name. This happened for a while with this species, when Andre Michaux came along and not only provided a much more eloquent description of the species which contained more information, but also deposited a "voucher specimen" (or a portion of dried plant material kept in a dried and pressed plant library called a herbarium) that was much more informative than Linnaeus' specimen. In order for a specimen to be deemed "valuable" or "informative" to a herbarium and to future researchers, you need to be able to see a few key characteristics: either intact flowers or fruit but preferably both, both the front and the back of the leaves, an intact branch or portion of the branch showing the leaf arrangement on the branch, and any other important characteristics of the plant that could be used to distinguish species. If you just press a leaf or two and call it a new species, all green glossy leaves start to look the same after a while! The fact that Michaux's specimen contained both the fruit (of the previous year, which don't dislodge from the branch until the end of the flowering period the next spring) and the flowers as well as some leaves means it was much more valuable than half a fruit and four leaves. BUT. Life as a taxonomist isn't always that easy, especially if you're trying to "one-up" Linnaeus. Most taxonomists today concede that Linnaeus' description and specimen are "good enough" and so his name takes precedence (also because it is older). Regardless of the proper Latin name for this species, the status of the species and the native range doesn't change. The native range has now become highly fragmented due to the urban expansion of large cities; the snowdrop tree used to occupy a large range from Mississippi all the way southeast to Florida and northeast to North Carolina in the United States, but now only occupies a few small pockets in this area where intact forests remain. It is now widely planted around the world as a small ornamental tree, but this doesn't help the regeneration of the natural population. Given more deforestation (due to continued urban expansion or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina), this tree species will almost certainly be at risk of extinction.

So what's so special about this tree? Well...it's pretty. And that's about all I've got. It's not a particularly outstanding tree for ornamental value, although it does have pretty white flowers (that don't usually have a very strong scent) in the early spring before the leaves emerge, then the unusual four-sided fruits that contain the seeds in the late summer through to the next spring. It's not a particularly good food source for any native Canadian animals since they don't recognize the fruits as being edible (that is, if they're edible at all; a single website states the fruits are edible and taste like cucumbers when still green but I don't recommend you experiment). The tree is incredibly slow-growing and rarely is taller than 10 meters in height. The tree often starts branching very close to the ground, giving it a bushy appearance, meaning the wood is also less than desirable for lumber purposes. The wood can often take on a very "knotty" appearance when grown in the presence of cicadas; they tap into the tree for the sap during the late summer (they use the tree's sap an energy source to make that buzzing sound). The tree goes a bit crazy trying to repair the "tap wounds" from the cicadas, and you end up with giant bulbs of woody tissue protruding off the main trunk and large main branches. Here in Canada the same thing happens, but often as a result of damage by other insects (which is strange, because we also have cicadas. Maybe they don't know they should be drinking snowdrop tree sap in Canada?). These protrusions make the tree look especially creepy at night because of the strange shadows the limbs cast.

Apparently this tree not only has an incredibly showy display in the spring with the flowers (which I'm ashamed to say I've never noticed despite this tree being right outside the building I work in), it also has a spectacular fall colour display. The leaves turn almost a neon yellow, which makes it stand out from all other yellow-turning trees before losing its leaves to overwinter. If I manage to catch the tree before it goes from "green to dead" (as I suspect many trees will this year with our first frost that we had last night...), I'll post an update with the fall colour and (if I remember this long down the road) another update in the spring when the tree is full of flowers.

The common name of this tree, for once, is actually something I can get behind. If you're familiar with early-flowering wildflowers, you will probably know and love snowdrops, sometimes called silver bells. If you've ever looked at them closely, they look an awful lot like the flowers on this tree except smaller and a clear difference between the petals and the sepals (sepals stick straight outwards, and the petals point down towards the ground). If you've never seen this tree before but have seen snowdrops, it will look a bit like you've picked a bunch of snowdrops and crazy-glued them to the branches of the tree to give it some colour. "Snowdrop tree" is indeed exactly what it looks like!