Mertensia paniculata

Known variously as tall bluebell, northern bluebell or tall lungwort, Mertensia paniculata is indeed among the tallest species of the genus, reaching heights of 90cm (3 ft.). Plants on Pink Mountain were taller at lower elevations (perhaps to 50cm) and often growing as individuals (first photograph). Along the summit ridge, plants were shorter (to 35cm) and typically growing in clumps (second photograph). This borage family species is native to much of the northern half of North America.

Mertensia paniculata has been studied for the relationships it has with some of its pollinators, two species of bumblebees (Bombus mixtus and Bombus frigidus). In most cases, pollination is a mutualistic relationship (both organisms benefit). Broadly speaking, some plants provide food (pollen or nectar) for pollinators in return for delivery of some pollen from one flower to another. Unfortunately for some plants, there are organisms who participate in nectar robbery (or, nectar larceny), where the nectar is stolen without the plants receiving the benefits of pollination. This was generally thought to have a negative impact on the plants, as it only seemed to benefit the thief.

Both bumblebee species play the roles of pollinators and nectar thieves with Mertensia paniculata. However, where nectar larceny by the bumblebees was prevented experimentally, no boosts to reproductive success were found. Closer observation revealed that the nectar larceny may actually benefit pollination — mature flowers of plants (heavy with nectar, short on pollen) served as attractants to the plants, and so the bees also visited the younger flowers (high pollen, low nectar). When mature flowers were removed and only the pollen-heavy younger flowers remained, visitation by bumblebees declined. To read more on this phenomenon, see: Morris, WF. 1996. Mutualism Denied? Nectar-Robbing Bumble Bees do not Reduce Female or Male Success of Bluebells. Ecology. 77(5): 1451-1462.

On a related note, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation distributed a press release today calling for endangered species protection for the rapidly-declining southwest Oregon / northern California Franklin’s bumble bee. Common over ten years ago, the species was last observed in 2006.

Lastly, some commenters in the past have expressed a desire to donate to Botany Photo of the Day. We now have a mechanism where you can give directly to our new Online Education Fund. I know there are many other worthy causes in the world, but if you feel like chipping in, it’d be appreciated. Gifts would initially be used to help hire a student via the University of British Columbia’s work-study wage subsidy program in the autumn. A gift of 20 dollars is roughly subsidized the same amount, so it would translate to approximately 40 dollars available for hiring a student.

Mertensia paniculata
Mertensia paniculata

9 responses to “Mertensia paniculata”

  1. Christiaan

    Thank you for now having a way for us looky lou’s to make a contribution to this wonderful website. These daily messages add immensely to my life.

  2. Meg Bernstein

    Thanks for so much information on the pollinators!

  3. dori

    Who took that wonderful artistic photo of the bluebell? It is the best flower portrait I have seen. (Top one.)

  4. Daniel Mosquin

    Dori, when I don’t thank another person for submitting a photograph, it means I was the photographer for that particular entry.

  5. Linda

    after all this time, you get some help? Glad to help. Brilliant idea. Photo of the day delights me and puts things back in perspective. Mertensia vis a wonderful family, and here in the east, M. virginica is now seeding itself happily and going underground for a well-deserved rest.

  6. Daniel Mosquin

    Well, I’ve had help before from students in the work-study program, but the endowment that we typically use to hire students is offering a much lower rate of return these days. It’s a tough management decision then to decide what segments to fund: outdoor summer students to help with weeding, a library student, an archives student (to help us prepare for our 100th anniversary in 2016), education support students, etc. If some small funds are generated by people’s generosity here, it helps the overall picture.

  7. Brenda

    Rookie question: Is mutualistic synonomous with symbiotic, which is a word I’ve seen in the past describing this type of relationship? If so, is it the newest/most proper jargon, or simply a different way of expressing the same type of activity. I’m not splitting hairs, just curious. I have been out of the loop, so to say, for a number of years. Thanks for the info. Love your site. Keep up the excellent work! Bravo/a

  8. Eric La Fountaine

    Brenda, mutualism is a type of symbiosis, where both benefit. In commensal, one benefits and the other is unaffected and in parasitic one benefits at the expense of the other.

  9. Steve Carwile

    The young leaves of Bluebells (in Alaska) taste like green beans.

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