A rare Nova Scotia plant faces a grim challenge as it struggles to survive
The Eastern Mountain Avens is a rare Nova Scotia plant facing a grim challenge just to survive near the Bay of Fundy
The Bay of Fundy is one of the seven wonders of nature in North America. It was formally declared so in 2014 by a panel of experts who also selected Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. There’s no wonder that Fundy is a wonder: it has the highest tides on the planet, it is an important waystation for rare whales, and with regularity it offers up important dinosaur fossils and semiprecious minerals. What’s more, positioned almost exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole, the Bay of Fundy is extremely beautiful.
Recently I discovered another reason to treasure this extraordinary region: the sole Canadian home of the delightful eastern mountain avens (Geum peckii) is remote Brier Island and the nearby East Ferry area at the very tip of Digby County at the southwestern limits of Nova Scotia. Tiny folk artist Maud Lewis hailed from these parts. So did Samuel Langford (1883–1956), the “Boston Bonecrusher,” described by ESPN as “the greatest fighter nobody knows."
is a scrapper too. A member of the rose family, this perennial boasts tough almost leathery leaves (one large and several smaller, often) topped by one to five showy yellow five-petalled flowers with an orange nectar guide at the centre, atop a long (20-40 cm) sinewy stalk. In blossom from June to September, it tracks the sun across the sky. When pollinated, it produces up to 60 seeds, though unlike its many cousins around the world, there is no obvious avenue for long-range seed dispersal. Come the fall, its green leaves turn blood red.
For such a tiny population it has remarkable resilience: the population in Nova Scotia is found in swamps and bogs, along lakeshores and creeks and in woodlands and abandoned pastures in cool, moist (not wet) and rich soil. In a bizarre bifurcation that makes it unique among vascular plants,
the only other population encountered occurs 400 kilometres due west amid harsh climes up high in the “alpine zone” on Mount Washington in New Hampshire along mountain streams and in meadows.
This is where it was first found by early botanist grandee William Peck (which is why he is honoured in the binomial). It was catalogued and named by an odd figure, one Frederick Pursh, a German-born botanist who jumped from job to job in the Americas, occasionally labouring as an almost itinerant gardener despite possessing a certain brilliance in botany. He was eventually hired to catalogue and publish the botanic results of the epochal Lewis and Clark Expedition, working under the direction of Thomas Jefferson himself. Before the prestigious project was complete, however, and under slightly mysterious circumstances, Pursh left the U.S. for England and later Russia, taking with him significant sections of Meriwether Lewis’s “national treasure” of plant specimens. He did eventually publish a single book, Flora Americae Septentrionalis, which was well regarded if ignored, a fact attributed in hindsight to Pursh’s “roughhewn” ways and the dubious manner in which he barely acknowledged others’ contributions. When he died in Montreal in 1820 at age 46, Pursh was a destitute alcoholic, stuck there after a job with Robert Semple, governor of Rupert’s Land, fell through due to Semple’s defeat in the so-called Pemmican Wars.
Despite its hardy nature, the eastern mountain avens is vulnerable to a variety of threats, primarily the result of drainage ditches created in the 1950s when hopes ran high about the area being converted to agriculture. This led to drier conditions that encouraged the rapid growth of several large gull colonies. The result was a threedecade-long transformation of the soil due to accumulated nitrogen from untold quantities of guano being deposited. A significant increase in vegetation as a result has thrown into shade this sun-loving plant. Combine this with increased human activity (more roads, more off-road ATVS, dumping, sheep grazing, peat gathering, eco-tourism and flower picking), and the plant is under tremendous threat. Listed as endangered and a species at risk, there is some hope this tough plant may persist in Canada, but the odds are long. If it is lost, a fascinating history will go with it.