Posted by: Reena Ramos

  • 02/28/2023

Research Update: How One Wildflower Responds to Environmental Change

In 2021, we shared the story of Emma Boehm, a doctoral student at Indiana University, who was beginning research on blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna). She wanted to learn how populations of the wildflower respond to environmental changes.

Her research included studying a phenomenon called “phenotypic plasticity,” an ability to quickly change traits without changing the underlying genes. An example of this in plants is stem length.

“If you’ve ever put a house plant in a shady part of your house, especially seedlings, you might notice that it gets a taller stem to help it find light. But put this same plant in a sunny spot or start it there, and that stem growth stops at a point since it doesn’t need to look for light anymore,” she said.

Blue-eyed Mary’s at Evelyn and Wendell Dygert Nature Preserve by Jenna Bair

Understanding plants’ ability to adapt and survive an extreme or novel environmental change can help inform conservation practices. In some parts of its range, blue-eyed Mary is endangered or threatened. Boehm hopes her work can help prevent it from getting to that point in other places. She collected seeds across seven places where blue-eyed Mary occurs, including two ACRES sites. These populations spanned latitudinal gradients and varied across environmental factors such as canopy cover and soil moisture. She then planted the seeds and grew them under the same controlled conditions in a greenhouse.

by Reena Ramos

Boehm recently shared an update with ACRES Stewardship Director Evan Hill. She found that even though the seeds were from the same species and grown under the same conditions, they took varying amounts of time to germinate depending on which location they were from. These preliminary findings suggest that blue-eyed Mary populations from across their range are exhibiting an adaptive response to the environmental conditions they experience.

“This can be interpreted as good news for the species. As we head toward mid-century, climatologists predict more extreme weather events, increasing average temperatures, and for plants such as the blue-eyed Mary, a shortened dormant season,” Hill said.

He added that there’s a need for additional research on numerous other species, both common and more conservative, to help determine plasticity and generic evolution potential.

See colonies of blue-eyed Mary for yourself this spring at Evelyn and Wendell Dygert Nature Preserve in Whitley County.