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Friday, March 30, 2012

Winner Winner! Draba oligosperma

Fewseed Draba, photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center
 The award for first flower this spring goes to Draba oligosperma, the fewseed draba, or fewseed whitlowgrass.

 Draba is a large genus of mostly small plants. (These minuscule plants are only about the size of a quarter, and maybe an inch tall.) Most of the approximately 380 species of Draba in the world, 121 in North America, and 26 in Wyoming, are alpine or boreal, where they inhabit some very windy and harsh habitats. Many species have quite small habitat areas, some even restricted to single mountain ranges.

Small plant, lots of character:
Fewseed Draba, photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center
The name Draba comes from the Greek word “drabe”, which means acrid, as in the taste of mustard. Though the tiny size of most Drabas makes them unlikely targets for the salad, their membership in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) can be recognized from their flower shape (as well as flavor). Members of the mustard family have four petals that make the shape of a cross, hence another name for the group, the “crucifers.” Less appealing is the common name of the genus, whitlowgrass, that comes from their supposed ability to cure whitlows—nasty fingertip infections.

No Courtship Needed!
Are you wondering what pollinates a plant that blooms this early in the season? The answer is: Nothing does! Fewseed draba reproduces asexually. While the flowers have anthers, the anthers do not produce pollen. Instead of going through the usually steps of making gametes (pollen and ova), fewseed draba produces diploid “eggs” that develop into embryos, each genetically identical to the parent plant. 

The name “fewseed” doesn’t come from an inability to make lots of seeds.  Rather, it refers to the small size of the fruits, which contain only a few seeds each. 

Keep your eyes open for these tiny yet charismatic plants – there are lots of them on the Berry Prairie!

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