Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 19. Mountain crowberry Pt.1

Visiting family at 1200 meters. The red leaves are Arctostaphylos alpina -or Alpine bearberry and the berries also edible.
Just below the mountain top at 1100 metres. Mountain Crowberry, Red Lingonberries and autumn coloured Bilberry plants.
Mountain crowberry on vellum.

Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum, mountain crowberry in english or krekling in norwegian, is a very interesting species. But when you start studying plants, which one is not interesting?

But this plant created a lot of excitement for me – which I will describe.

As with the other plants in this series, I knew and recognised the plant but didn’t know much about it. To me it was a common plant as I have lived in the mountains here, and like many people took it for granted. Apparently, it grows well as long as it gets enough sun.

One  part of my painting (see sketch) was a tiny plant from a mountain top 4th July, with snow swirling around me. The plant was tiny in comparison to those growing in areas where there is plenty of nourishment, but it definitely shows how tough it is. The roots were buried into cracks in the rock.

Sketch with tiny plant specimen.

As with the other plants in this series I used ‘Norges Flora’ by Knut Fægri to find out more. I would love to get hold of these books because although old, they contain so much information about each species.

It was in reading about the plant that I understood that there are two species of Empetrum nigrum, one is single sex and grows at sea level and low-lying areas, and the other, a subspecies, is hermaphrodite (the one I am painting). The leaf arrangement on the specimens I was using showed clearly that it was hermaphrodite; the distance between leaves is a diagnostic point.

Victsing lens

After doing my research I looked at the plant more closely and was able to see vestiges of a dried up flower in a leaf axil. I also read that the fruit retains the stamens as it develops and found some of these too. You will see the remnants of these in the ripe Mountain crowberry above.

Dried out flower vestiges

I have a piece of the plant in my garden and have been able to follow the plant’s development in detail. This was where the ‘Victsing’ lens for my mobile phone really came in useful as it helped to enhance the detail and let me see what was going on. I was also able to take loads of pictures underway.

In August 2017 the tiniest of buds started to appear in the leaf axils of that year’s new growth. I was able to follow the development on a regular basis, until the following spring when the same bud developed into the flower you see in my final artwork. I expect some of you may now understand why I got so excited.

The two pictures showing the growing tip of the plant were taken at different times. The first in August 2017 and the second in April 2018 – the same tip.

When I saw the tiny flower buds and recognised what they were, I initially thought that the plant was going to flower early and rushed out every morning to see what was happening. Nothing did until I saw the faintest slither of pink the next April.

I should have done more research! Because that is what a botanical artist needs to do; look, see and understand. I have learnt so much about plants since I started drawing them and this is the first thing my students comment; they learn to look and see! Funnily enough it makes walks in the countryside even more interesting.

I followed the same buds and saw them develop and open up into flowers that could hardly be seen with the naked eye. The flower when fully open is about 2mm across! But something had seen them, a tiny caterpillar! 

I will tell you about what happened in my next blog due to be published 25 May 2023.

One picture shows the tiny developing fruit with the vestiges of the stamens still attached. The underside of the leaves seem to have a white line running though, almost like a vein. As you can see with the leaf cut in half, the white line is where the edges of the leaves roll under and meet each other forming a hollow tube.

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