Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Botanizing in Alaska: Bunchberry

This marks my 100th blog post. I started this blog to provide an outlet for my desire to write and share some of my photography and thoughts/observations about biology. It was intended to be an outlet that didn't come with the pressures of the academic work life I had then. I was a professional research biologist (with a heavy computational specialty) and for now am out of academia and living the life of an office grunt.

My day job doesn't really have much to do with the study/application of biology, but there is little that could keep me from considering myself a biologist. Often times, the biology think about relates to my garden, but I wouldn't consider this to be a gardening blog. It is more that I consider my garden to be part of my "research lab".

My garden allows me to do certain types of experiments. My microscope and other tools allow me to do other sorts of experiments. My computer allows me to do yet others. I consider all of these things to be parts of my research lab. Biology is a complicated and wide-ranging subject area that can be approached from many directions.

I expect I'll keep finding things to discuss on a weekly basis for quite some time. I also expect my thoughts will continue to cover a range of topics not always traditionally associated with biology.

I visited central Alaska around the summer solstice in 2015. I took a lot of photos of the city and in particular of the plants I came across. Though I've tapered off with this topic, I still have a series of posts that I'm still trying to find the motivation for.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, "Dwarf Dogwood") is the smallest species of a widely distributed genus of small-to-medium sized trees. This species grows over a broad swath of the northern edge of North America (Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, etc.).

Where I live in Minnesota is at the southern edge of the plant's range, where it only grows marginally. I find the occasional specimen growing in heavily shaded woodland sites in some local parks.

In central Alaska, the plant grows wildly. Large and dense patches were found growing along some exposed road-sides near the tree-line at high elevation. It was also growing widely in the shaded woods near where I was staying, just as more scattered populations than the ones at higher elevations.

Later in the season, the pollinated flower clusters develop into tightly-packed bunches (hence the name "Bunch"berry) of bright-red berries. The berries are technically edible, but they have a large seed and are pretty much tasteless. In general, I'd say they're not worth the effort to gather. However, I'd probably taste a sample of the berries if I came across a patch in the hopes of finding one that did taste good, because who knows, I might get lucky.