Sunday, September 22, 2013

You put your left flower in, you take your left flower out...

Species name: Physostegia virginiana

Common name: obedient plant

Location: Western University campus

I didn't realize until after I had taken and water-marked these photos that I had already blogged about this plant once. If you'd like to go back and read the first version, you can do so HERE. If you'd like to read a "better than the last" version, keep reading! :)

The obedient plant is one cool plant. Endless hours of entertainment if you're lost in a prairie (more on that later). The native range of this tiny plant is quite impressive, ranging from the northernmost edge of the temperate forest in Canada all the way south to parts of the (very small bit that's remaining) tropical forests of Mexico. If grown in Canada it illustrates the reason why I should have made the species status diagrams with a "common, native, invasive species" combination because it spreads very quickly and can dominate a landscape in just a few years. Where there is snow during the winter the plant will die off, but because of the extensive underground network of rhizomes it will pop back up in the spring and produce more of the beautiful flowers. If you're thinking of planting this species in your garden, then go ahead and do so if you live in my area. It's a native species, and it's never a bad idea to plant a native species! You might want to reconsider, however, if you have an intense aversion to weeding (it will spread, trust me) or if your yard backs onto an Environmentally Significant Area. For those locations, even the slightest change in dominant species (such as providing a source for a seed bank of a weedy, although native, species) could spell disaster for the area. Always make sure you keep in mind what is around you before making major changes to the landscaping in your yard.

This species is one of the best examples of a member of the mint family, or the Lamiaceae. The stems of this family are almost always square, while nearly all other plant stems (the notable exception are the sedges) are round in cross-section. You can see the ridges of the square stems of this plant clearly in the third picture, above. The leaves are also characteristic of the mint family: they are simple leaves with teeth (some members of the mint family have leaves with smooth edges) that emerge from the stem directly across from each other. The next node up (or down) on the stem will also have opposite leaves but they will be at right angles to the previous level of leaves. You can also see what I mean by this in the third photo. The flowers are also very characteristic of the mint family, although different varieties of this plant have been modified in different ways (sometimes quite drastically) to be different than the so-called "wild type." A wild type plant is a plant that would be found growing in the wild without having experienced any intervention by horticulturalists (or, in the case of edible plants, farmers). The group of plants above are pretty characteristic of the wild type of this species: purple-pink flowers, the flower petals are joined at the bottom and form a structure that looks like two lips at the edge of the flower, darker purple or purple-pink splotches on the bottom lip, and the sexual parts (most noticeable being the stigmas) being attached to the top lip of the flower. This "two lip" morphology isn't done just by chance by the plant; it's actually a flower shape that has co-eveolved with the choice pollinator of this species: bees. Something that you may or may not be aware about bees is that they can't see colours like we see colours. Everything green looks a very dark blue to them, so picking out flowers from a sea of blue-black is difficult, especially when you can't see them. Bess are special, though, because they can see a wavelength of light that we can't see: ultraviolet light. This means that anything that's purple, or even purple-pink, will glow when a bee looks at it. The flowers themselves aren't quite purple, so merely act as lightly glowing beacons in the sea of blue-black plant material. This is enough to entice the bees over, but the dark purple patches on the lower lips of the flower is what really brings the bees over. The bees see the structure of the flower, and use the lower lip of the flower like a landing pad (those darker splotches would be like the landing lights that pilots use to land planes on runways at night). The bee would wiggle around, trying to get its head as deep into the flower tube as possible to access all of the yummy nectar. This would cause the bee's back to rub up against the stigmas of the flower (located on the top lip, which you can see in the fourth and fifth pictures above), which would dust pollen all over the bee's back. Once the nectar is gone, the bee would fly to the next flower, do the same thing, and transfer all of the pollen from its back onto the stigmas of the next flower, ensuring successful cross-pollination. Sneaky little flower! But also quite a smart little flower.

So why is this plant called the "obedient" plant? stays where you put it. Huh? The flowers actually have the ability to swivel around the flower stalk, and when the flowers swivel into a new position they stay that way. Check it out below:

In the top photo all of the flowers are pointing towards the ground, which is actually pretty common in this species once the flower heads flop over (often they grow too quickly for their own stems to support them if conditions are ideal). In the bottom photo I took two of the flowers by the base and swivelled them around to point straight up. They'll stay that way for up to a minute, then flop back to their original position. If you give the flowers a break, you can move them back and forth multiple times before the plant will just give up on those flowers and dissolve them off the flower stalk. Only the best are allowed to set seed!

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