Tuesday, May 11, 2010

White Flowers - 3

Drunken Silenus, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1618

Scarlet blooms of the Fire Pink (Silene virginica) have brightened the landscape the past several weeks. But I’ve been thinking about one particular patch of Fire Pinks that I saw on the Blue Ridge Parkway last June.

In the midst of the red flowers, a few white ones stood out conspicuously. I could recollect some range of color in Fire Pinks, but never anything approaching pure white!

I turned to my guidebooks for a white-flowered equivalent to Silene virginica. At first glance, Silene stellata seemed a likely candidate, but the Starry Campion (native to this area) has lacy petals very different from the ones on the white Fire Pink wannabes.

After reading that uncharacteristic white flowers can develop on occasion, I decided to take a two-minute crash course on albinism in flowers.

There are albinos and then there are albinos.

Technically speaking, an albino plant is one lacking pigments. This is a losing proposition, since chlorophyll is essential for the production of carbohydrates in most plants. Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) derive their sustenance from complex relationships with other plants and fungi, and so they survive their lack of pigmentation.
(Tom Pelletier explains the Indian Pipes /mycorrhizal connections and life cycle http://www.curiousnature.info/A1-Indian%20Pipe.htm )

Indian Pipes, Monotropa uniflora

But back to Silenus...

Those odd white Fire Pinks had green stem and leaves, and thus were not “albino plants” in the strictest sense of the term. Through the expression of recessive genes, however, white flowers can appear on plants that don’t generally bear white flowers.

One more possibility is the “sport” which can result from a traumatic disturbance to plant tissue and leads to a deviation in only part of the affected plant.

Somewhere in the preceding, I might have touched upon the reason for a white Fire Pink.

Who knows!

By the way, "Fire Pink" (or at least the “Pink” part of its name) is not a reference to the flower’s color. Instead, imaginative flower-namers thought the shape of the petal suggested it had been trimmed with pinking shears.

Hence, this decidedly red flower is a pink.

And while on the subject of botanical etymology, Gray’s Manual of Botany explains:

[The genus name, Silenus] was adopted by Linnaeus from earlier authors, said to have come from mythological Silenus, referring to viscid excretions of many species, the intoxicated foster-father of Bacchus being described as covered with foam.

In another month, I’ll track down that patch of Fire Pinks once again, just to see if those mysterious white blooms return this year...with or without "viscid excretions."

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, ca. 1620, attributed to Anthony Van Dyck


James Golden said...

Viscid excretions? Um...

GULAHIYI said...

Who says "Gray's Botany" isn't great literature?!?