Hidden away in PEI and New Brunswick, this uniquely Canadian Lechea is as charming as it is rare
Hidden away on coastal P.E.I. and New Brunswick, the uniquely Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence Beach Pinweed is as charming as it is rare
Pinweed are “quiet” helianthemums, members of the vast Cistaceae or rock rose family. They are a generally admired bit of shrubbery appealingly festooned with small flowers during brief blossomings. Found primarily in the temperate areas of Europe (in and around the Mediterranean and other temperate areas of the continent), several variants are encountered along the East Coast of Canada and down to Florida.
As prior readers of this column might have noted, since taking it on in the March/april 2017 issue, I have focused on some outliers of the Canadian plant kingdom, profiling obscure species in out-of-the-way places. That trend continues with this column, since, the above description notwithstanding, the specific plant we are considering here is particular and localized. Of the large family grouping I mentioned above, Gulf of St. Lawrence beach pinweed plants are located only in one tiny corner of the eastern shoreline of New Brunswick and the north coast of Prince Edward Island. Its full scientific name is Lechea maritima var. subcylindrica.
It was one of the 20th century’s botany greats, renowned New Hampshire
botanist (and constant diarist), Harvard-trained Albion Reed Hodgdon who, in the 1930s as part of his PHD thesis, tracked and recorded all Lechea variants up and down the East Coast of United States and Canada. He identified the unique version expressed in a pocket of the south shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
It is an herbaceous perennial with a roughly 10-centimetre taproot, erect branches and fruiting stems up to 35 cm long. Clustered low basal leaves are heavy and drab green, while stem leaves are crowded though alternating. The tiny three-petalled pin-sized flowers are clustered in groups of six (or fewer) and are a red-hued brown. The fruit is an ovoid shape encapsulating four or five seeds.
Its seeds may be the secret to its continuing existence: like most Cistaceae, the seeds have an armoured outer casing. Although this means fewer seeds germinate early, they are very small and sift into the sand, remaining dormant for long periods of time. Eventually abraded and opened by the moving grains of sand, a little rainwater seeps in and they soften and begin to grow. This is an adaptive seed strategy for life in maritime sand dunes, which often offer drought-like conditions punctuated by salty storm seas washing over as well as periods of intense precipitation.
The plant’s hold on life is precarious: it clings to landward areas protected from winds, salt spray and blowing sand. (Interestingly, its habitat is different around Miramichi Bay, where it appears in woodlands on stable dunes well back from the shore.) According to Environment Canada, “recent increases in the frequency of severe storm events, potentially associated with human-caused climate change, have had an impact on coastal dunes supporting Canadian populations of beach pinweed, causing increased extent of flooding, erosion and breaching.” In addition to the damage wrought by increasing maritime storms, recreational Atv-riding is another threat to its survival.
In 2008, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada determined that one third of the existing population of Gulf of St. Lawrence beach pinweed is on protected land: Kouchibouguac National Park; Portage Island National Wildlife Area; Bouctouche Dune; Cabot Beach Provincial Park; and Prince Edward Island National Park. These pockets are safe from damage from human encroachment. Throughout its limited domain, the plant is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act and various provincial laws and regulations.