As a research subject, object of beauty, and master of deception, it may be hard to beat fen grass-of-Parnassus.
Not a grass, this perennial plant features a rosette of leaves at its base from which an elegant stalk rises to display one of the loveliest and most duplicitous blooms of late summer.
The symmetry of the flower, five pearly petals marked with sharp green stripes, and its alluring reproductive parts bring me literally to my knees. Day after day, regardless of rain or mosquitoes or my mood, I have been crawling around in order to study how fen grass-of-Parnassus, um, well, you know . . . gets it on.
Along the way, I’ve made two important observations. First, in this drama of reproduction, the plants at my study sites in Vermont cavort with a bee found nowhere else but in the company of fen grass-of-Parnassus. More important, in my own cavorting with fen grass-of-Parnassus, my study has become a kind of meditation on beauty and the unruly pace of life.
Curiosity first drove me to these plants. I wanted to understand the lengths to which the flower’s male parts, its five stamens, go to put pollen onto that rare bee, whose given name is parnassia miner. What I’ve been finding so far is that on most days only one of the five stamens participates in the mating game. It lengthens and positions itself so that the bee picks up its pollen and then flies off to unwittingly deposit it on the female part, the pistil, of another flower. After its single day in the limelight, the stamen retracts and another takes its place.
To get the most benefit from this one-stamen-per-day antic, the flower also employs subterfuge. It stations 15 yellow beads, resembling drops of nectar, to entice and orient the bee just right to foster the exchange of pollen from plant to plant. But those droplets, like shiny glass candy, are fakes. I have watched various ants, flies, and the bee in particular fall for this ruse.
Like romance in general, it’s complicated.
By no means a botanist, I am driven by routine curiosity and inordinate beauty. During my daily visits with these flowers, I have come to know their unique folds and flaws and tendencies. Each bloom is an ongoing story with a plot line and four major characters: the stamens, the pistil, the fake nectar, and the bee. And in these flowery dramas I have discovered something else, something unexpected: respite.
When I visit with fen grass-of-Parnassus there is no e-mail inbox, no culture wars, no news from Ukraine, no routine daily worries or annoyances. Among these flowers I do not turn my gaze toward other charismatic nature nearby: warblers calling overhead, for example, or even intricate white orchids blooming at one of my study sites.
“To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me,” Edward Abbey once wrote in his essay “Walking.”
If you ask me, to be alone with fen grass-of-Parnassus is to be blissfully nowhere else. A single flower is refuge from the daily fusillade of distraction.
Fen grass-of-Parnassus is, for me, a genuine manifestation of joy and wonder and mystery — like sex or chocolate, like the Bach cello suites or love for another person.
Then again, sometimes a flower is just a flower — simply and objectively beautiful.
Bryan Pfeiffer is a semi-retired field biologist and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He lives in Montpelier.