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