Field Guide

A rare Nova Sco­tia plant faces a grim chal­lenge as it strug­gles to sur­vive

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Mel Wal­wyn

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.

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