Jun 20 2010
Yes, Columbo, but I’m not referring to the disheveled detective played by Peter Falk.
Last weekend I traveled to a secret meadow to find this enormous plant in bloom.
American Columbo (Frasera caroliniensis) is a member of the Gentian family and endangered in Pennsylvania. Some people call it Monument Plant, an obvious name when you consider my bright green walking stick in this photo is 3.5 feet tall. The plant is huge! (See better photos here.)
American Columbo has an unusual reproductive strategy. It’s a monocarpic perennial that grows as a rosette of basal leaves for many years without flowering. Then in response to an unknown trigger it shoots up a stalk 10 feet high, blooms and dies.
When it will bloom is a mystery no one can predict by its size or age but botanists think individual plants may bloom synchronously with other Columbos nearby. A solo plant transplanted by a botanist did not flower in 15 years of watching. Was it lonely?
Do all the Columbos in a meadow bloom at once? No. The meadow has plants of different ages because Columbo seeds are fussy. They won’t germinate until they’ve soaked up water when the temperature is about 40o F (5o C). Seeds that remained in the old seed head must wait for the right conditions to occur when they reach the ground so they won’t germinate for another year or more.
My visit to this mysterious plant ended in a bumbling detective adventure. As I bushwhacked out of the meadow I dropped my bifocal sunglasses but didn’t discover my loss until I’d hiked another half hour. I returned to the meadow to find them but I my path was obscured. I couldn’t be sure I was retracing my steps.
After a long search I found my sunglasses. Broken. Someone had stepped on them. Who?
Did I? Yes, the sunglasses fell under my feet and I stepped on them just after they fell.
Mystery solved. Thanks, Columbo.
(photo by Kate St. John)