Field Guide

From ge­o­graph­i­cal, ge­o­log­i­cal, lit­er­ary, his­tor­i­cal and of course botan­i­cal per­spec­tives, this is a fas­ci­na­tor

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Mel Wal­wyn

From ge­o­graph­i­cal, ge­o­log­i­cal, lit­er­ary, his­tor­i­cal and botan­i­cal per­spec­tives, the Hairy Braya (Braya pi­losa), a hardy mem­ber of the mus­tard fam­ily, is a fas­ci­na­tor!

Canada’s Arc­tic! When I was alerted to the idea that this en­tire is­sue of Cana­dian Wildlife would be de­voted to that fas­ci­nat­ing re­gion, I was de­ter­mined that Field Guide would fo­cus on the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, most Cana­dian ex­em­plar. The hairy braya (Braya pi­losa), a hardy mem­ber of the mus­tard fam­ily, is just that.

First, this ex­cep­tion­ally rare plant lives way up north and nowhere else. The only place it can be found on the globe is at and near the very tip of Cape Bathurst, a penin­sula in the western Arc­tic form­ing the north­ern­most point of main­land North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. It is one of only a few slen­der fin­gers of coastal North Amer­ica to reach above the 70th par­al­lel. Hairy braya was gath­ered there three times early in the 19th cen­tury and recorded again only 154 years later in 2004 by a botanist trav­el­ling from Utah.

Sec­ond, on this penin­sula are the “smok­ing hills,” a bizarre yet nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non of burn­ing shale oil strata that smoul­der in the frozen ground. It is a bizarre site: smok­ing hills in an icy tun­dra. Adding to the weird­ness of the site, re­sult­ing ponds of foul-smelling sul­phur diox­ide dot the nearby land­scape, like some­thing out of sci­ence fic­tion.

Which brings us to the third amaz­ing fact: Cape Bathurst, through some ob­scure link­age, be­came cen­tral to Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Le Pays des four-rures (The Fur Coun­try). In it, the French fan­ta­sist por­trays the spit as a mas­sive though un­rec­og­nized ice for­ma­tion that, af­ter a vol­canic erup­tion, breaks away and drifts west and south. The gi­gan­tic ice­berg car­ries a Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany fort and its in­hab­i­tants through the Ber­ing Strait as it grad­u­ally melts away. (At the risk of be­ing the spoiler, I will re­veal that all hands are even­tu­ally saved.)

Fourth, where fact be­comes stranger than fic­tion, the first western sci­en­tist to see and cat­e­go­rize this ex­cep­tion­ally rare species was the Scot­tish ship sur­geon, nat­u­ral­ist and Arc­tic ex­plorer, John Richard­son. He found it in 1826. And how did he come to be there then? He was a mem­ber of Sir John Franklin’s two first

ex­pe­di­tions to the North. Yes, that Franklin, he of the Ere­bus and Ter­ror and their dis­as­trous quest for the North­west Pas­sage two decades later. Richard­son was one of those who sur­vived Franklin’s first calami­tous foray via the Cop­per­mine River (1819-22), which in­volved mur­der, can­ni­bal­ism and the most ex­cep­tional lack of pre­pared­ness on the leader’s part. Just a few years later, dur­ing what was a rare suc­cess­ful en­ter­prise un­der Franklin (who was ei­ther ridicu­lously un­lucky or, more likely, in­com­pe­tent), Richard­son helped map 3,000 kilo­me­tres of coast­line. He was per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for gath­er­ing thou­sands of plant sam­ples, later cat­e­go­rized in sev­eral vol­umes of Flora Bo­re­aliamer­i­cana (1830) by Sir Wil­liam Hooker, a grandee of early botany. It was Hooker who rec­og­nized and cat­e­go­rized the plant as Braya pi­losa, part of the Bras­si­caceae fam­ily of an­giosperms. Amaz­ingly, to­day at the Kew Gar­dens herbar­ium near Lon­don, there are dried sam­ples from three sep­a­rate ex­pe­di­tions: Richard­son in 1826 and 1848 (dur­ing an un­suc­cess­ful search for Franklin’s fi­nal and most deadly fail­ure) and one from a Cap­tain Pullen in 1850.

Which brings us to the botan­i­cal story. With lar­gish white flow­ers, hairy braya is dis­tin­guished by the hair (hence the name) on its mul­ti­ple stems, which range from four to 12 cen­time­tres. A peren­nial, it grows on iso­lated patches of cal­cif­er­ous silt and sand in an area that re­mained ice-free dur­ing the Pleis­tocene era. There are an es­ti­mated 15,000 plants in 13 ar­eas spread over 64 square kilo­me­tres. Lit­tle is known about it, though the fact that it is fra­grant and has large blos­soms sug­gests it is pol­li­nated by in­sects.

Not sur­pris­ingly, given its lim­ited range and harsh en­vi­ron­ment, the hairy braya’s days seem num­bered. A de­crease in sea ice on the Beau­fort Sea as tem­per­a­tures rise is lead­ing to rapid ero­sion of its coastal habi­tats (10 me­tres a year) and to harm­ful salt spray as a re­sult of storm surges. The most sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tions fur­ther in­land are threat­ened by flood­ing. The plant is ill-equipped to com­pete with other species when ex­pand­ing into new ar­eas, though rel­a­tives flour­ish in Greenland. Since 2013, Braya pi­losa has been listed as en­dan­gered by COSEWIC un­der the fed­eral Species at Risk Act. The fu­ture of this found and lost and found Cana­dian rar­ity there­fore may be coming to a sad end.

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