Class project from 1993 helps prove flower grows on P.E.I.

Flipping through a field guide on wildflowers of the Maritimes, nature enthusiast Laura O’Connor noticed what she believed was a mistake.

One of the flowers, the yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), was listed as not being found on Prince Edward Island.

This surprised her, as she had childhood memories of the small yellow flower with distinct leaves. 

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time playing in the woods behind our house and there was a lot of trout lily there,” O’Connor said.

“I had remembered the look of the leaves and the plant.”

Laura O’Connor said Kevin MacAdam, her Grade 6 teacher at Rollo Bay Consolidated School, helped inspire generations of students to learn more about nature. (Submitted by Laura O’Connor)

So in the summer of 2020, she went back into the woody areas and rediscovered the plant growing wild.

But how she knew the official name — and how to identify it — was thanks to a Grade 6 class science project at Rollo Bay Consolidated School.

“So we went up to the attic and found the bin of ‘Laura’s stuff’ and sure enough the plant project was right in the bin,” O’Connor said. “And there it was, on Page 8, pressed trout lily from 1993.”

Laura O’Connor went back in the summer of 2020 to take photographs of the the yellow trout lily plants near the woods she played in as a child. This was taken after the flower had already bloomed and before the leaves disappeared for the season. (Submitted by Laura O’Connor)

She had written down the date —  May 15 — along with the scientific name and where she had collected it.

Her teacher at the time, Kevin MacAdam, had put a check mark beside the flower, indicating that young Laura had identified the plant correctly.

Easy to miss

John Klymko, a zoologist with the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, checked the records and some scientific literature.

“You can understand how it could be missed,” Klymko said. “It seems like it probably is very localized on P.E.I., [growing] only in the Souris area maybe or eastern Kings County.”

Klymko said while the yellow trout lily is an easy-to-identify plant, it flowers early in the season and the leaves disappear by mid-July.

John Klymko, a zoologist with the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, says citizen science can help researchers and scientists gather more information and data from the field. (Submitted by John Klymko)

These factors may have led to it being missed by previous botanists.

It’s very important to have the assistance of amateur naturalists in the Maritimes, Klymko said; some of them have professional-level expertise.

“We rely a lot on people like that for data, with citizen science becoming ever more important.” Klymko said.

He mentions web applications like iNaturalist, which let people upload photos and information about plants, animals and creatures in the wild. That information can then be shared with the scientific community.

A yellow trout lily in flower taken in Kent County, N.B. (Submitted by Sean Blaney/AC CDC)

Klymko said the older version of that, the school plant collection projects, could still hold other findings.

For example, MacAdam had students searching the woods for many years as part of that science project. (Rollo Bay Consolidated School closed in 2009 and the former teacher died in 2014 at the age of 60.)

“It’s likely that there are other plant collections out there — maybe up in parent’s attics — that have additional records of trout lily,” Klymko said.

“Mr. MacAdam didn’t seem surprised that Laura found trout lily so he probably knew of other locations for the plant.”

Discoveries yet to be made

Klymko said the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre would be interested to know if other class projects included the trout lily.

The yellow trout lily has now been added by the centre as a rare, potentially imperilled, species on P.E.I. from the limited locations it has been discovered so far. 

Apps like iNaturalist can help people identify the creatures and plants in the garden or when they are out for walks. (John Robertson/CBC)

Some yellow trout lily was intentionally introduced at the Macphail Woods area previously so that population had not been added to the provincial plant list before.

Part of science

O’Connor said MacAdam helped inspire a love of nature in the students he had taught. Now, part of that class project will end up helping amend the provincial plant database.

“It’s a pretty cool feeling. It makes you feel like you are part of science,” O’Connor said.

“With science, every tiny little bit sort of builds up to this big body of knowledge and so there’s a little joy to be taken in the small findings too.”

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