Saturday, June 4, 2016

Bluebead lily - Clintonia borealis - Poison à couleuvre

I have been at the lake for a few days, organizing myself for the upcoming field season and helping my parents set up the gardens. Today, I was working a bit less and so took the opportunity to take a walk and enjoy the weather.

I took quite a few photos, but the real surprise for me was discovering Claytonia borealis (common name: bluebead lily). While I'm familiar with the plant, this is the first time I've seen it blooming in person (probably because it blooms right in the middle of the bug season and I usually make it my business to have business elsewhere than the woods at this time of year). It's more familiar to me as a plant with metallic blue berries toward the end of July or the beginning of August.

Clintonia borealis whole view
This lovely little plant is at least 12 years old, as it takes at least a dozen years for an individual to establish itself sufficiently to bloom [1]. This plant was actually here alone, though this species is commonly colonial [2] , as it can reproduce through rhizomes (spreading root stalks) [1]. Once it flowers, it can either self-pollinate or outcross (receive pollen from other individuals) [1]. Because it is so slow to reproduce, this species is particularly vulnerable to disturbance such as excessive deer herbivory [1]. If you have this species on your property, please do not cut the flowers or disturb the plants, if at all possible; despite their small stature, flowering individuals are quite old and the next generation will only replace them very slowly.

C. borealis is found in boreal forests in eastern North America (range map here) and is exclusively found in wooded/shaded areas [1,3] . In the more southern parts of its range, it is restricted to mountainous areas with appropriately cool, shaded habitat. This lovely little plant is endangered in Indiana and Ohio, threatened in Maryland, and of special concern in Tennessee [4]. Unfortunately, the Plants of Canada database is currently down so I can't easily access information about its legal status up here. One Ontario source lists the plant as common, however, suggesting that at least in this province the plant isn't at any particular risk [5].

C. borealis is a member of the Lilaceae (lily family), and displays the 6-partite character of that family in the flowers, as shown in the picture below. The flower has 6 tepals (not petals, which only occur when there are also sepals).

C. borealis flower, close view
There appears to be some disagreement between sources about whether or not the berries are safe to eat. One source lists them as poisonous and posing a potentially fatal risk to children who cannot reliably distinguish between these berries and blueberries [5]. In my experience, C. borealis can grow in the shade of blueberry bushes and it does take some care to make sure to only collect blueberries when out foraging. That said, I've never accidentally consumed one of these and I was actively foraging for berries quite young. Another source, however, asserts that the berries are not toxic, merely extremely unpalatable [6]. I have always known it as a poisonous plant, but not through direct experience or any particularly definitive source. That said, I would recommend against ingestion of the fruit and that some care be taken to ensure that the berries aren't accidentally collected and consumed with blueberries.

I was only able to go out and truly enjoy the weather because the bugs were less severe today. We're just hitting the tail end of bug season; even yesterday, things were bad enough that my mother was frequently singing The Blackfly, sometimes cheerfully and sometimes more resignedly. Since it's a hilarious and delightful song, I've embedded the video below; the animation is a real treat, too, done by the National Film Board (of Canada). Enjoy!

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