Today John and I explored Riverbend Park at the western edge of Jupiter, Florida, one of the most biodiverse natural areas hereabouts. You always encounter something cool, from liverworts to turkeys. This morning the pileated woodpeckers were knocking on wood. Our primary objectives were water horn ferns, Ceratopteris pteridoides, but John has not processed the images yet. No problem, Riverbend has plenty to ponder. In bloom today was a pretty little curiosity some call Sunny Bells. Its branched wands of white bells rise from a rosette of knitting needle leaves down in the wet marsh soil.
Normally I don’t chat up boring taxonomic relationships. But maybe you will find Schoenolirion a tolerable exception. Won’t take long, the entire genus is just three species. Like many genera around the fringe of the massive Lily Family, Schoenolirion has a checkered past of inconsistent assignment to different families. Lily-relatives have been a taxonomic bugaboo for a long time. DNA places Sunny Bells in the Agave Family, anchored in Mexico and the western U.S.
A lot of Florida plants have Tex-Mex ancestry. Although we can’t know about extinct species, the three living Schoenolirions seem to reflect two separate lineages branching separately out of the Southwest, one offshoot headed north and east (Georgia, NC), the other to the south and east (Florida), and the third species left behind out west. Schoenolirion wrightii is the westernmost species, extending from Texas into Alabama. It seems to show its Agave Family xeric origins in its habitat preference, out-west dry after a wet spring. The chromosome number is 24. Hang on to that number. It matters. Two dozen.
The species that split off to the north and east is Schoenolirion croceum, sort of “centered” in Georgia to North Carolina (and in Texas). This species is so similar to S. wrightii that its status as “separate” is dubious, although it has two idiosyncrasies. 1. Its chromosomes numbers are mixed as 24 (rarely), 30, and 32. That’s just weird, and there is another difference, 2. yellow (vs. white) flowers. So if Texas is the original home Pardner, this species headed northeast altering its flower color and “experimenting” chromosomally.
That brings us to our own S. albiflorum. It too could be seen as having its origins in Texas or Mexico, resembling its western cousin S. wrightii by retaining white flower coloration, by doubling wrightii’s chromosome number to 48 or 49, developing a branched inflorescence (vs. unbranched in the other two species), and switching from seasonally dry to almost always wet. Interestingly, the other two species have bulbs at their bases, but not S. albiflorum. Maybe a bulb is no asset in 24/7 wet habitats.
What S. albiflorum sports in place of a bulb is unusual. It has a short vertical rhizome which dies at the base and regrows at the tip. From the rhizome radiate contractile roots. Contractile roots work like rubber bands by shortening and pulling the rhizome continually downward safely into the soil, like a turtle’s head contracted into its shell. Sunny Bells keeps its head down!
Turn back a moment to S. croceum, the yellow-flowered species centered in Georgia. The seeds have an unusual two-fisted adaptation. Many species have seeds unable to germinate until they experience a cold period followed by warming in the spring. Others require a warm spell, thus sprouting during or at the end of summer. Neither is remarkable. And now for the good stuff:
Schoenolirion seeds work both ways. A warm treatment kicks them to sprout, but with a proviso, only in the dark. Thus they begin growth in the autumn strctly underground out of harm’s way until spring, when they can surface into the light of day already growing with a head-start. Alternatively, a cold treatment can do the trick, but, unlike the warm-treated seeds, the cold-treated seedlings rise readily in daylight. Thus in the spring the species has a first team and a second-string. A batch of the older fall-sprouted seeds are ahead of the curve, but only if they survive winter. If the frosty months kill the sooners, no problem, Sunny Bells has a fresh spring cohort eager to rise and shine with no further delay.
If you are now grousing, well, yea, classification boring, you still have a shot at amusement. Here’s a useful little snippet from an old ethnobotanical report: