Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Native Albino

For those of you that have been out on the trails over the last month or so (when it wasn’t raining, that is!), you have likely noticed one of our early blooming native plants – fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum). It is a woody shrub with spiny stems, glossy and rounded leaves, and chock-full of gorgeous raspberry-colored flowers that dangle down like inverted tear drops with legs. Chances are that if you are near a fuchsia-flowered gooseberry that is in full bloom, you may get “buzzed” by an angry hummingbird that has claimed the bush for its nectar supply. At the base of the flower, a small spherical fruit will develop that will be covered in spines as well. These berries were eaten by Native Americans and are related to cultivated gooseberries as well as currants, which are similar but the fruits are not spiny.
But last month, a local hiker and native plant enthusiast, Cynthia Guthrie, alerted me to the presence of an albino fuchsia-flowered gooseberry on the Preserve in Turnbull Canyon. This plant has all of the same physical characteristics of other fuchsia-flowered gooseberries, but its flowers are greenish-white instead of a reddish-raspberry color. I inquired with other botanists to see if they had seen this elsewhere and none had, so I sent off a sample to an expert at Humboldt State University, Michael Mesler, who is writing the key for the gooseberry family in the revised Jepson Manual (one of the primary sources for California plant identification). Although he had not seen albino forms of this species before, he had seen it in other related species. Apparently the albino condition is due to a mutation in this individual shrub, which has somehow removed an enzyme involved in the production of the normal pigment color. It will be interesting to see if this mutation carries over to the next generation of plants in the area – keep your eyes peeled for any more white or light pink colored fuchsia-flowered gooseberries next spring!

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