Life is full of relationships. Some are mutually beneficial (what we might call healthy). Some are one sided and exploitative (what we might call unhealthy). As it is in life, so it is in wild spaces. Yesterday I located a small plant at Barbour Rock Vista where the loose nutrient poor soil slopes at a steep angle between West Rim Trail and the large flat sandstone rock so famous for the view it offers. This little plant, no bigger than my hand, had small flowers which, to my eyes, resemble the face of a grumpy fish.
Here are my notes from the field: cow wheat (melampyrum lineare) seems a beneficial native plant of the loose nutrient-poor soil under the canopy of red pine and chestnut oak at Barbour Rock. Observed two ants moving meticulously from one leaf to the next seemingly interested in something this plant has to offer. A fragile plant with a woody stem and branches. White flower with yellow tip and black spot resembles the face of a grumpy fish.
Life is full of relationships. Some healthy. Some unhealthy.
To know the name of a wild neighbor is a beginning point to endless discovery. To understand something of a wild neighbor's character is to tap into the larger narrative of the place each calls home. Every wild space has a story to tell. The ecology of Melampyrum lineare is a case in point.
Upon researching my observations, I discovered that M. lineare is a semi-parasitic plant. Part of the reason for it's placement is that a significant portion of it's energy is obtained by tapping into the root structures of red pine trees, and in doing so, "sapping" the tree of some of it's energy (pun intended!). A one-sided relationship, clearly unhealthy from the perspective of the pine.
Recall that a couple of ants were observed meticulously searching among the leaves of M. lineare for something. It turns out that a number of species of wood ants are known to harvest the seeds of M. lineare. The ants transport the ripe seeds to their nest to feed the seed's elaiosome (fleshy covering) to their young. After the elaiosome has been removed, the seeds are transported to the waste area of the ant's burrow system, which is typically filled with the kind of decaying organic matter that makes for a very good germination site for the young seed. This interaction between M. lineare and wood ants is a mutually beneficial arrangement. A healthy relationship in this forest ecosystem.
The next time you drop by Barbour Rock Vista, I hope you are able to locate this intriguing little plant for yourself and notice it's relationships with it's fellow neighbors at the canyon rim. There are vast relational networks with many varied dynamics in every wild space. If we let them, our wild neighbors and the ways each relates to others can remind us of who we are and the way we want to live.