Screw Pines, Volcanism, and Diamonds

The association between geology and botany has always fascinated me. The closer you look, the more you can't separate the two. Rocks and minerals influence soil characteristics, which in turn influences which plant species will grow and where, which in turn influences soil properties. Take for instance the case of kimberlite.

Kimberlite is a volcanic rock whose origin is quite intense. Kimberlite is found in the form of large vertical columns, often referred to as pipes. They are the result of some seriously explosive volcanism. Intense heat and pressure builds deep within the mantle until it explodes upward, forming a column of this igneous rock. 

Over long spans of time, these pipes begin to weather and erode. This results in soil that is rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous. As anyone who gardens can tell you, these are the ingredients of many fertilizers. In Africa where these sorts of pipes are well known, there is a species of plant that seems to take advantage of these conditions. 

It has been coined Pandanus candelabrum and it belongs to a group of plants called the screw pines. They aren't true pines but are instead a type of angiosperm. Now, the taxonomy of the genus Pandanus is a bit shaky. Systematics within the family as a whole has largely been based on fragmentary materials such as fruits and flowers. What's more, for much of its taxonomic history, each new collection was largely regarded as a new species. You might be asking why this is important. The answer has something to do with the kimberlite P. candelabrum grows upon. 

There is something other than explosive volcanic activity that makes kimberlite famous. It is mostly known for containing diamonds. In a 2015 paper, geologist Stephen E. Haggerty made this connection between P. candelabrum and kimberlite. As far as anyone can tell, the plant is a specialist on this soil type. As such, prospectors are now using the presence of this plant as a sort of litmus test for finding diamond deposits. This is why I think taxonomy becomes important. 

If P. candelabrum turns out not to be a unique species but rather a variation then perhaps this discovery doesn't mean much for the genus as a whole. However, if it turns out that P. candelabrum is a truly unique species then this new-found association with diamond-rich rocks may spell disaster. Mining for diamonds is a destructive process and if every population of P. candelabrum signals the potential for diamonds, then the future of this species lies in the balance of how much our species loves clear, shiny chunks of carbon. A bit unsettling if you ask me. 

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The Curly-Whirly Plants of South Africa

In a region of South Africa traditionally referred to as Namaqualand there exists a guild of plants that exhibit a strange pattern in their growth habits. These plants hail from at least eight different monocot families as well as the family Oxalidaceae. They are all geophytes, meaning they live out the driest months of the year as dormant, bulb-like structure underground. However, this is not the only feature that unites them.

A walk through this region during the growing season would reveal that members of this guild all produce leaves that at least one author has described as "curly-whirly." To the casual observer it would seem that they had left the natural expanse of the desert flora and entered into the garden of someone with very particular tastes.

What these plants have managed to do is to converge on a morphological strategy that allows them to take full advantage of their unique geographical location. The region along the coastal belt of Namibia is famous for being a "fog desert." Despite receiving very little rain, humid air blowing in from the southwestern Atlantic runs into colder air blowing down from the north and condenses, carrying fog inland. This produces copious amounts of dew.

Normally dew would be unavailable to most plants. It simply doesn't penetrate the soil enough to be useful for roots. This is where those curly-whirly leaves come in. Researchers have discovered that this leaf anatomy is specifically adapted for capturing and concentrating fog and dew. This has the effect of significantly improving their water budget in this otherwise arid region. What's more, the advantages are additive.

The most obvious advantage has to do with surface area. Curled leaves increase the amount of edge a leaf has. This provides ample area for capturing fog and dew. Also, by curling up, the leaves are able to reduce the overall size of the leaf exposed to the air, which reduces the amount of transpiration stress these plants encounter in their hot desert environment. Another advantage is direct absorption. Although no specific organs exist for absorbing water, the leaves of most of these species are nonetheless capable of absorbing considerable amounts.

Finally, each curled leaf acts like a mini gutter, channeling water to the base of the plant. Many of these plants have surprisingly shallow root zones. The lack of a deep taproot may seem odd until one considers the fact that dew dripping down from the leaves above doesn't penetrate too deeply into the soil. These roots are sometimes referred to as "dew roots."

I don't know about you but this may be one of the coolest plant guilds I have ever heard about. This is such a wonderfully clear example of just how strong of a selective pressure the combination of geography and climate can be. What's more, this is not the only region in the world where drought-tolerant plants have converged on this curly strategy. Similar guilds exist in other arid regions of Africa, as well as in Turkey, Australia, and Asia.

Bird's Foot Violet

As a life long denizen of deciduous forests, prairies and savannas present an entirely new set of stimuli. A recent excursion into an expansive oak savanna found me overwhelmed by the beauty of such places. Being mid October, the color pallet of the landscape ranged from myriad shades of reds, browns, yellows, and oranges. I was walking through a particularly sandy patch of soil when something caught my eye. A little flash of lavender shone through the amber grasses. To my astonishment I had found a plant that has managed to elude me for many years. 

What I had found was a bird's-foot violet (Viola pedata). Its deeply divided leaves, which faintly resemble a bird's foot, are unmistakable. What was even more fantastic was that this particular plant was in full bloom. I looked around and found only a small handful of other plants. This one was the only one in bloom. Though not unheard of for this time of year, I couldn't help but revel in the serendipity of the moment. 

Like all members of the genus Viola, bird's-foot violet is a photoperiodic plant. By this I mean that all aspects of its growth are sensitive to the relative amount of sunlight in any given day. Violets are generally spring time plants, however, the shortening days and cooler temperatures of fall aren't that different from spring. As such, this lovely little plant was perhaps a bit confused by the cool October weather. I didn't see any pollinators out and about but that doesn't mean that a hardy bumblebee wouldn't be lucky to stumble into its blooms. 

Back in my home state of New York, this particular species of violet is truly a rare find. The kind of habitats which it frequents have been largely destroyed. It is a xeric species that doesn't appreciate water hanging around for very long. Finding it growing in mostly sand was not surprising to say the least. Like most other violets, its seeds come complete with their own fleshy protuberance called an elaiosome. The purpose of these fatty attachments are to attract foraging ants in the genus Aphenogaster. The ants find the elaiosomes to their liking and take them back to their nest. Once the elaiosome is eaten, the seed is discarded into a refuse chamber inside the nest. There it finds a favorable microsite for germination full of nutrient-rich ant compost.

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"The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go..." - John Muir

I find myself thinking the same thing as I drive to work every morning - "Screw you, North Carolina! How dare you be so beautiful?" I say this with love of course. I mean it too. My daily commute takes me through the Cowee Mountains, which represent only the tiniest fraction of the giant fold in the continent that we collectively refer to as the "Appalachian Mountains." Driving between these forested peaks, it feels as if time stands still. They are a stark and constant reminder of just how small and insignificant our time on this planet really is. 

What so few realize is that these mountains are some of the oldest on Earth. They are the collective result of some serious geology. Between 325 million and 260 million years ago, Africa slammed into North America (though it wasn't the continent we know today) causing massive upheaval of the crust. This was also the birth of the super-continent Pangea. The resulting upheaval produced a mountain chain similar in size to the present day Himalayas (think Mt. Everest). They have been steadily eroding ever since. 

Today, the highest peaks reach somewhere in the 6,000 feet (1,800 m) range. Despite this reduction in size, the Appalachian Mountains have nonetheless been a major driver in the ecology of eastern North America. They have served as refugia for species escaping glaciation, they act as corridors for migration, and they even produce their own climate. They may not be the snow capped mountains of the American West but they have a uniqueness all their own. There aren't many places in this world in which one can explore broadleaf deciduous forests at elevation. If I could end up here I think I would die a happy man. For now, I am spending every free moment absorbing the beauty and splendor of this place. It is going to be hard to leave...