January’s Flower

For me, each month has its signature flower, one that I look forward to as a sign of the changing season, that I can find as predictably as the sunrise and sunset. If you follow this column in 2023 and are up for the challenge, I’ll give you 12 flowers to seek out, and I’ll describe the ways that it is emblematic of its given month. January’s flower is called Scoliopus bigelovii, Fetid adder’s tongue a.k.a. slink pod.

The name is not alluring, though perhaps you may find it beguiling: fetid adder’s tongue is the first wildflower of the New Year. It is a lily, but not your typical lily, so you might not recognize it as such. I judge how good I have been at being a naturalist each year on the basis of my having seen and smelled this distinct flower. The flowering period is brief. Too often, I find the plant after the flowers have faded, when I then recall its alternate name ‘slink pod’ for the seed pods that slink across the ground on long sinuous stems.

This is a very short plant, so you will have to bend nearly to the ground to put your nose to the maroon striped flower. The scent is like not very fresh fish, hence the ‘fetid’ part of its name. Those of us who sniff old mushrooms are familiar with the old fish smell of many mushrooms that are past their prime. The similarity of scent is not an accident…it is co-evolution.

Fungus Gnats

This year’s prize for my spotting this deep-shade wildflower was seeing its pollinator in action. Flies! “Of course,” I thought, “that smell and that maroon color are diagnostic for fly-pollination!” Reading up, I discovered that fungus gnats are important pollinators of fetid adder’s tongue, which needs to receive pollen from another plant in order to produce viable seed. The pods won’t slink unless the flowers get pollinated!

This flower appears in the darkest, coldest part of winter in the most shady, moist habitats around – not good conditions for most pollinators. Bumble bees, honeybees, and butterflies wouldn’t find enough to eat in the cold forest to warrant forays. On the other hand, moist soil and mushrooms are the perfect combination to support healthy populations of fungus gnats. As weak sunlight filtered through a rare patch of open sky, I watched slow-flying fungus gnats hovering around patches of the stinky fetid adder’s tongue flowers, dipping down to sip nectar, clumsily bouncing into the pollen-bearing stamens.

Ant Plant

As if specializing in dank forest fly pollinators wasn’t enough, fetid adder’s tongue also needs another insect helper to survive: ants. Once the fungus gnats have pollinated the flowers, the plant starts pushing the seed pods across the forest floor, far from the mother plant to ensure that any offspring don’t compete for the same rare forest floor nutrients. The pods ripen with seeds that have ant-food attached. The part of a seed that is ant food is known as an elaisome (ɪˈleɪəˌsəʊm): it is sweet and fleshy and nutritious. To get the tasty parts, they haul off the seeds and, as ants will do, bury them in their colonies. This is particularly handy for the fetid adder’s tongue as then the seeds escape both hungry deer mice and scorching fires.

Conserving a System

Fetid adder’s tongue’s natural history illustrates the interconnectedness of nature and the reasons we need to think broadly about what it takes to conserve species. To conserve this amazing plant requires having large enough slink pod populations for cross-fertilization and big enough populations and diverse enough species of fungus gnats for pollination. How large and diverse those populations should be is unknown. Those ants, fungus gnats, and fetid adders tongue populations require shady forests and rich soil covered with moist thick duff: those elements speak to not too much soil disturbance…think trail or logging disturbance management. How does wildfire play with these factors? Fire can’t be too catastrophic, and patches need to be burned less for shade, soil, and duff: that might take forest fuels and other wildfire management. Also, there are issues about invasive species: invasive fungi, weeds, and invasive ants could all negatively affect components of this ecosystem that would trickle into the health of slink pods. This all points to the wisdom of our community in fighting so hard for so many years to protect vast areas of redwood forests – we are seeing the patchy but catastrophic fires, invasive Argentine ants invading forest edges, and expansive soil disturbance from trail networks. Do we have enough forest set aside so that future generations will be able to witness the complex relationships between fungus gnats, ants, and fetid adder’s tongue? Are enough people now appreciating and viewing these amazing interactions? Let’s get out there and see…

Sleuthing Locations

Slink pod is not easy to find, though with a little effort you can do so. The trick is to be on time (January!) and to know where to look.

When I want to research exactly where to go to look for a plant, I turn to a database called CalFlora. This amazing online resource often has great photographs of each species, the Latin and common name(s), and an interactive map of locations. Click on a dot on the map and out pops a window telling you how it was documented there. In some cases, that allows you to see a scanned image of the herbarium specimen of the species. By looking at that map, I can suggest the best places to see this species in our region. The Forest of Nisene Marks and Big Basin State Parks have many records of this plant.

Plant People

If you click on that ‘scanned image’ link above, and examine the herbarium sheet of the plant, you’ll notice that it was collected in 1991 in Nisene Marks by Larry Kelly, now a leading international botanist at New York Botanic Garden. Clicking on other specimens, you’ll encounter other famous botanists going back in time, including Dean Taylor, an Aptos resident who was one of the cornerstones of California botany (1986), David Self, a founder of ecological restoration in California (1975), Deb Hillyard, for years our region’s protector of plants via the California Department of Fish and Game (1975), Ray Collett, long-time Director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum (1966), John Hunter Thomas, the author of the go-to regional plant book ‘Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ (1954), and Milo Baker, one of the State’s early famous botanists (1896).

Join In!

The Cal Flora website has recently begun to host observations from people posting on iNaturalist, an online forum for documenting and learning about nature. Download the application to your smart phone, take a photo of the plant, and you have an easy catalogue of your nature observations. You can also ask for help identifying a species. This crowd-sourced scientific catalogue can help others find a plant for which they are looking and provide scientists with long-term data on the population trends of species. Plus, because there are so many people placing observations at the site, it is mesmerizing to virtually explore the photographs, maps, and conversations about species – already there is a lifetime of things to learn and the site is young.

If you are up to my challenge, take a deep, dark forest stroll soon and try to find fetid adder’s tongue in bloom…and maybe enter that into your iNaturalist account.

-this post originally published at BrattonOnline.com, Bruce Bratton’s online weekly blog from Santa Cruz, California

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