Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mutant Erythroniums?

My front yard with Native Fawn Lilies

I have an amazing front yard. For ten years I have enjoyed amazing blooms of naturally occurring (not planted by anyone) native plants right in my own front yard. The first of these each spring is the lovely and delicate Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum. These creamy colored members of the Lily family have two speckled or mottled leaves and send up a single stem from which a single flower blooms. I enjoy every minute of them, until, one morning, the entire yard will be a sea of stems, missing the creamy white flowers, likely being browsed by some urban ungulate.

Close up of Fawn Lily from the side
Looking down
Looking from the ground up

Form character showing 2 basal leaves.

Last year, for the first time, I noticed an individual plant that had not one but two flowers on a single stem that bifurcated near the top. I took pictures and made a mental note of the strange and rare occurrence; I mean I have been loving this plant species for over a decade in it native environments and had never seen this growth form before. 

Well, this year, there are at least 10+ two-headed Erythroniums in my yard, and I can't help but wonder what is going on.** Is some mutant two headed allele increasing in frequency in the Fawn Lily population in my yard? Is there some sort of contamination that is causing mutations to occur during the development of the stem and floral whorls? Is there a pathogen, perhaps a fungus or bacteria effecting the change? These are the things I wonder. It appears that the at least one of not both flowers on the two-headed ones are poorly developed, unhealthy looking, and possibly infertile. 
Example of poorly developed floral structure
Part of me would love to be able to sequence the genetics of a "wild-type" and my hypothetical mutant. Wouldn't it be interesting to discover a mutation in the homeobox genes responsible for directing this growth? I know this doesn't interest everyone, but I personally will continue to puzzle over this two-headed mutant even as I wait for the next round of spring blooms in my yard--Iris tenax and Calochortus....stay tuned!

**Recent input from two local elder botanists suggests that in years or locations where nutrients are not limiting, in other words readily available, it is common to encounter healthy populations of E. oregonum with two headed individuals. 

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