Blazing Stars (and blazing buccal lining)

13 Nov

Liatris species


Today John and George became so perplexed identifying sedges time flew in sunny Jonathan Dickinson State Park (CLICK), where we encountered Mudfish alive and in person, familiar to some readers from blog commentary and fishing fame.

White Prairie Clover (Summer Farewell, Dalea pinnata) filled a distant meadow with a white we did not recognize from afar.   Below the snowy heads on the stem are glistening blister glands reminiscent of poison ivy on your ankle.  After scratching and sniffing the glands, the odor perfumed my hand for an hour.   Not nose- nasty really, sort of like the essential oils of mints, pines, or eucalypts.

Summer Farewell. See the blister glands? (By JB)

Then came the part I regret to confess.  The dumb move went down thusly:  “Those glands must be loaded with a feeding deterrent; might be interesting to see how it tastes.”    Nibble nibble.    Okay, this was on a maturity level with a four-year-old poking a coathanger in a wall socket.  You can’t describe the blister gland taste, because taste is not the primary sensation.  Rather, the entire lining of my mouth experienced oral shock and awe in one nanosecond.  The oral mucosa turned to superglue.  It wasn’t merely unpleasant—panic is a better word.   John asked demurely if I was experience poisoning.  (And please, it might be best not to mention this incident to my mother.)

Liatris sports jaunty upright magic wands of (usually) purple flower heads sufficiently spectacular and durable to  sell as cut flowers and garden plants.  Blazing Stars! Gayfeathers!  We don’t need to buy any around here though, because we are naturally endowed.   About five species beautify our usual flower-peeping radius.   Florida claims about 14 species, three limited to our state, most in dry habitats including scrub.  Altogether there exist almost 40 species.

The Liatris adaptations to harsh above-ground hazards are noteworthy.  They are Armageddon-proof with safe underground structures called corms.  Corms are short, broad, vertical subterranean stems (not roots) shaped like a child’s top or a beet.  Not that many everyday garden plants have corms:  think gladiolus, cyclamen, crocus, and edible Aroids.

Liatris corm (by JB)

Another adaptation is more subtle.  As background, Florida Rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) is allelopathic, that is, it spews natural herbicides to suppress vegetative competition or neighbors that might invite fire.  Guess what’s resistant to that allelopathic attack?  Among others, a species of Liatris in Florida scrub has rosemary-proof seeds according to ecologists Molly Hunter and Eric Menges.

Conspicuous in the Park was a dichotomy in the dominant flower displays.  One party had broad flat-topped  horizontal clusters in white, yellow, or purple.  The other party, by contrast, elevated their white, yellow,  or purple flowers on narrow vertical spikes.   Liatris is in the latter staunch spike group.

Granting flat-topped clusters their own virtues, today it is all about Liatris, so what are the pros to posies on a pole?  And now we speculate.  Disclaimer: The following may be BS, but big boo hoo.  First of all, I haven’t done the engineering math, but a tall wand seems to allow for extra-many flowers in a growing season, and some spikes have leaves among the flowers and thus flower and photosynthesize at the same time.   A broad flat inflorescence offers a “big bang” of flower power, a show with a big peak moment.  But a vertical spike can “burn like a 4th of July sparkler,” spacing out flowers over time, catering to “trap-lining” (repeat-visitor) pollinators.  Ditto for “seed” dispersal, parsing the seeds (achenes) out, not just in space but also in time.

And, to end on silly notions run wild, if there’s physical damage to a spike, such as being eaten by a deer, the lower levels may live on in.  And as one final plus of the skyscraper approach, enjoy this YouTube (CLICK) showing how a high-rise condo accommodates a lot of residents at once.

A vertical spike spacing flowers out in time (stolen from Google Images)


Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Blazing Star


Tags: , , , ,

6 responses to “Blazing Stars (and blazing buccal lining)

  1. Mary Hart

    November 14, 2012 at 4:25 am

    Your taste experiment was on a par w. (I think) Darwin trying to catch 3 beetles at once, so put one in his mouth!)

    • George Rogers

      November 14, 2012 at 7:19 am

      I feel a little better now. Better to be compared with Darwin than pure idiot.

  2. mudfish

    November 14, 2012 at 6:49 am

    “Those glands must be loaded with a feeding deterrent; might be interesting to see how it tastes.”

    Oh, George – ha,ha! Reminds me of the time I sniffed the bucket of chlorine tablets to see what they smelled like. Woke up on the way to the doctor’s office!

    A pair of investigatory geniuses, we be.

    • George Rogers

      November 14, 2012 at 7:17 am

      Well, you never said how they smelled. Now I gotta try it too. Maybe that fresh Jonathan Dickinson air spawns genius.

  3. Steve

    November 14, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Hey George, I am glad you are still alive! I’d really miss reading your articles if you ended up pushing prairie clovers. On another note, Liatris is also known for having determinate inflorescences. I would think that this would be an evolution hinderance, as in times of good, the plant cannot produce extra flowers, thereby increasing its fecundity, whereas in times of bad, it might suffer from the commitment, and either die or waste resources. Can you think of an evolutionary advantage to having such a blooming mechanism?

  4. George Rogers

    November 14, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Maybe prairie clover stink-juice is good for the gallbladder or something. For readers unfamiliar with the term “determinate”—it means the flower spike ends KAPUT in a flower, then the progression of flowering moves downward along the spike like that sparkler burning from an established top. An “indeterminate” inflorescence (or anything), by contrast, grows like a branch with a bud at the tip that can keep on extending, well, indeterminately. That doesn’t help answer the questions as to “why,” though, and I don’t honestly know.

    But we can make up stuff with the best of them. As far as the extra flowers go, even though the tip stops, the total length of the inflorescence and flower number is adjustable in an evolutionary sense, if not in a “this year” sense. So perhaps maxing out flower number in a year is not critical, and the determinate length is “on average” optimized, with long-term evolutionary adjustment.

    Also, if the tip is cut off, it seems from at least some Liatris in the field you get (I think) consequent axillary spike growth compensating for the loss. Might have to behead some near my home while walking the dog and see. (Today I’d like to behead the dog but that’s off-topic.) The finite determinate growth does place some open flowers up high early on, and maybe built-in growth limitation helps by allocating resources to that optimized flower number relative to photosynthate, root intake, stalk strength, and other factors instead of limitless biggering.

    Here is a huge research project—did Liatris evolve its spikes from ancestors with broader determinate inflorescences? Textbooks make it look like spikes are sort of “primitive” inflorescences from which others can be derived. Makes nice sequential charts, but no reason evolution had to go in that direction. Maybe the Liatris spikes are modified from something more cymose-thyrsiform where determination is standard.


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