The Dawn Redwood

The dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is one of the first trees that I learned to identify as a young child. My grandfather had one growing in his backyard. I always thought it was a strange looking tree but its low slung branches made for some great climbing. I was really into paleontology back then so when he told me this tree was a "living fossil" I loved it even more. It would be many years before I would learn the story behind this interesting conifer.

Along with the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), the dawn redwood makes up the subfamily Sequoioideae. Compared to its cousins, the dawn redwood is the runt, however, with a max height of around 200 feet (60 meters), a mature dawn redwood is still an impressive sight.

Until 1944 the genus Metasequoia was only known from fossil evidence. As with the other redwood species, the dawn redwood once realized quite a wide distribution. It could be found throughout the northern regions of Asia and North America. In fact, the fossilized remains of these trees make up a significant proportion of the fossils found in the Badlands of North Dakota.

Fossil evidence dates from the late Cretaceous into the Miocene. The genus hit its widest distribution during a time when most of the world was warm and tropical. Evidence would suggest that the dawn redwood and its relatives were already deciduous by this time. Why would a tree living in tropical climates drop its leaves? Sun.

Regardless of climate, axial tilt nonetheless made it so that the northern hemisphere did not see much sun during the winter months. It is hypothesized that the genus Metasequoia evolved its deciduous nature to cope with the darkness. Despite its success, fossil evidence of this genus disappears after the Miocene. For this reason, Metasequoia was thought to be an extinct lineage.

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All of this changed in 1943 when a Chinese forestry official collected samples from a strange tree growing in Moudao, Hubei. Though the samples were quite peculiar, World War II restricted further investigations. In 1946, two professors looked over the samples and determined them to be quite unique indeed. They realized that these were from a living member of the genus Metasequoia.

Thanks to a collecting trip in 1948, seeds of this species were distributed to arboretums around the world. The dawn redwood would become quite the sensation. Everyone wanted to own this living fossil. Today we now know of a few more populations. However, most of these are quite small, consisting of around 30 trees. The largest population of this species can be found growing in Xiaohe Valley and consists of around 5,000 individuals. Despite its success as a landscape tree, the dawn redwood is still considered endangered in the wild. Demand for seeds has led to very little recruitment in the remaining populations.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]
 

 

Straight out of Seussville

At first glance this photo seems fake. However, I assure you this is indeed a real plant. Meet Pachypodium namaquanum, the elephant's trunk. This bizarre member of the family Apocynaceae can be found growing in the dry rocky deserts of Richtersveld and southern Namibia in South Africa. Although it may seem better suited for life in a Dr. Seuss book, I assure you that all aspects of this plants strange appearance enable it to live in some of the harshest climates possible for a plant.

During the spring and summer months (November - March) temperatures in these regions can reach upwards of 50°C (122°F). It doesn't rain much either. What little water this plant does receive comes in the form of fog rolling in from the coast. Oddly enough, the elephant's trunk seems to prefer growing on the most exposed slopes possible, favoring spots where sun and wind are at their worst.

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As such, everything about P. namaquanum seems to be focused on water conservation. The most obvious feature is that swollen trunk, which serves as a water storage organ. It is no surprise then that this valuable storage organ is covered in spines. These "trees" remain leafless during this time as well. This keeps valuable water reserves from evaporating in the summer heat.

There is at least one aspect of this plants physiology that seems to stand in the face of the harsh desert environment in which it lives. Anyone who has observed these plants in the wild may have noticed that their tips all seem to be pointing northwards. What's more, this inclination usually ranges between a 50° and 60° angle. This is strange because most desert plants usually prefer to minimized their exposure to solar radiation rather than face it head on.

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The reason for this becomes more apparent with the onset of fall. Come April, the climate of this region becomes a bit more mild. Also, the sun begins to dip below the horizon for longer periods of time. It is around this time that the plant will produce leaves. A single whorl of velvety leaves emerges from the very tip of the stem. This is also the time in which it reproduces. Attractive yellow and red flowers spray out from between the leaves.

Because the success of the elephant's trunk is reliant on this relatively short growth period, the plant aims to maximize its gains. This is where the northern inclination comes into play. Such an orientation serves to maximize the amount of sunlight the leaves and the flowers receive. In this way, the leaves and flowers absorb twice as much sunlight than if they were vertically oriented. It is thought that the sunlight warms the flowers as well as brightens their display, making them impressive targets for local pollinators.

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Like most members of this family, seeds are produced in pods and are borne on silky hairs. The slightest breeze can carry them a great distance. Though germination comes relatively easy to this species, it is nonetheless declining in the wild. Mining and livestock have taken up a lot of their available habitat. Poaching is second to these threats as its strange appearance makes it highly sought after by greedy gardeners.

Photo Source: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

The Fanged Pitcher Plant of Borneo

As mammals, and even more so as apes, we tend to associate fangs with threats. The image of two dagger-like teeth can send chills up ones spine. Perhaps it is fitting then that a carnivorous plant from a southeast Asian island would sport a pair of ominous fangs. Friends, I present to you the bizarre fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata).

This ominous-looking species is endemic to Borneo and gets its common name from the pair of "fangs" that grow from the lid, just above the mouth of the pitcher. Looks aren't the only unique feature of this species though. Indeed, the entire ecology of the fanged pitcher plant is fascinatingly complex.

Lets tackle the obvious question first. What is up with those fangs? There has been a lot of debate among botanists as to what function they might serve. Some have posited the idea that they may deter mammals from feeding on pitcher contents. Others see them as mere artifacts of development and attribute no function to them whatsoever.

In reality they are involved in capturing insects. The fangs bear disproportionately large nectaries that lure prey into a precarious position just above the mouth of the pitcher. Strangely enough, this may have evolved to compensate for the fact that the inside of the pitchers are not very slippery. Whereas other pitcher plant species rely on waxy walls to make sure prey can't escape, the fanged pitcher plant has relatively little waxy surface area within its pitchers. What's more, the pitchers are not very effective at capturing prey unless they have been wetted by rain. The fluid within the pitchers also differs from other Nepenthes in that it is not very acidic, contains few digestive enzymes, and isn't very viscous. Why?

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

The answer lies with a specific species of ant. The fanged pitcher plant is the sole host of a carpenter ant known scientifically as Camponotus schmitzi. The tendrils that hold the pitchers themselves are hollow and serve as nest sites for these ants. Ant colonies take up residence in the tendrils and will hunt along the insides of the pitchers. In fact, they literally go swimming in the pitcher fluid to find their meals!

This is why the pitcher fluid differs so drastically from other Nepenthes. The fanged pitcher plant actually does very little of its own digestion. Instead, it relies on the resident ant colony to subdue and breakdown large prey. As a payment for offering the ants room and board, the ants help the plant feed via the breakdown of captured insects (which are often disposed of in the pitchers) and the deposition of nitrogen-rich feces. Indeed, plants without a resident ant colony are found to be significantly smaller and produce fewer pitchers than those with ants. The ants also protect and clean the plant, removing fungi and hungry insect pests.

Sadly, like many other species of Nepenthes, over-harvesting for the horticultural trade as well as habitat destruction have caused a decline in numbers in the wild. With species like this it is so important to make sure you are buying nursery grown specimens. Never buy a wild collected plant! Also, if you are lucky enough to grow these plants, propagate them! Only by reducing the demand for wild specimens can we hope of curbing at least some of the poaching threats. Also, what better way to get your friends into gardening than by sharing with them amazing carnivores like the fanged pitcher plant.

Female flowers

Female flowers

Photo Credit: [1]
Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Tropical Oaks - Lessons in Biogeography from a Giant Acorn

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Seeing the nut of Quercus insignis in person for the first time was a peculiar experience. I didn't know acorns came that big! What was even stranger was encountering this species in the tropics. I thought that in leaving my temperate home behind, I had left trees such as oaks behind as well. Thus, picking up this gigantic acorn was a challenge to my ignorance of tropical forest diversity. What it did for me was ignite a fury of questions regarding the biogeography of the genus Quercus.

Quercus insignis is native from Mexico to Panama. It is a member of the white oak grouping and, despite having one of the largest acorns of any oak species, relatively little is known about this species. What we do know is that it is in trouble. It is considered critically endangered in Mexico and near threatened in Guatemala and Panama with a remaining stronghold in Nicaragua. Habitat loss and changing environmental conditions seem to be at the core of its disappearance.

One big question was looming over me. What was an oak doing this far south? Call it a northern bias but I have always associated oaks with more temperate climes. I needed to get over this. My investigation lead me to some very interesting work done on the family to which oaks belong - Fagaceae. Based on some incredible paleontological and genetic detective work, we now know that Fagaceae originated in Asia. The first fossil evidence of a member of this family dates back some 100 million years, during the early part of the Cretaceous.

At this time, the continents of Asia, Europe, and North America were still connected. Some 60 million years ago, the genus Quercus diverged from Castanea. They were also starting to radiate across the Northern Hemisphere. The first fossil evidence of oaks in North America comes from Paleogene deposits dated to 55 to 50 million years before present. This is when the oaks really started to hit their stride.

Between 22 and 3 million years ago the genus Quercus underwent numerous speciation events. The new terrain of North America must have presented countless opportunities for oaks because they quickly became the most specious genus of all the Fagaceae. This radiation was particularly fruitful in what would become the U.S. and Mexico. Of the roughly 220 species that exist in this region today, 160 occur in Mexico, and of those, 90 species are endemic.

This brings us to the tropics. Evergreen and semi-evergreen oaks have done quite well in this region. However, their astounding diversity quickly drops once you hit the isthmus of Panama. South America is home to only one species of oak. What happened that limited the oaks reign south of the equator?

To put it simply, geology happened. For much of the Earth's history, North and South America shared no connection. Though the exact time frame is debated, tectonic forces joined the two continents some 4.5 million years ago. The Great American Interchange had begun. The two continents were able to freely exchange flora and fauna like never before. The migrations are thought to have been a bit lopsided. Tropical flora and fauna did not do as well farther north but temperate flora and fauna seemed to find warmer climes more favorable. As such, South America gained disproportionately more biodiversity as a result.

This pattern did not hold true for everything though. For the oaks, only one species (Quercus humboldtii) made it through. As such, the genus remains a dominant fixture of the Northern Hemisphere. Sadly, much of this diversity is at serious risk of being lost forever. Like the magnificent Quercus insignis, many of the world's oaks are on the decline. Disease, habitat loss, and countless other issues plague this genus. A 100 million year old journey is quickly being undone in less than two centuries. The hand of man is time and again proving to be a force unrivaled in the biological world.

Leaf Credit: http://www.oaknames.org/

Further Reading:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112713006580

A Very Strange Sedge

I am quickly realizing that there are some plants out there that I simply cannot prepare myself to see. Something about their look, growth habit, or location just crosses some wires in my brain and causes me a few minutes of confusion until I can regain some composure. Fraser's sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) is one such plant.

I had briefly read about this species on a trail map website. The author mentioned there would be some plants worth seeing in the area and Fraser's sedge was one of them. Not being particularly good at gramminoids I figured I probably wouldn't know it even if I had seen it. Was I ever wrong. Fraser's sedge may very well be impossible to miss.

It grows rather large and its long strap-like leaves are more reminiscent of some sort of epiphytic orchid or limp bromeliad. Indeed, Fraser's sedge is truly unique. It is the only member of its genus and experts believe it to be a very old, relictual lineage. It is only found growing on rich mountain slopes in the Appalachian Mountains. It is also quite endangered throughout much of its range due to habitat fragmentation.

Aside from its foliage, Fraser's sedge also produces what are quite possibly the most attractive flowers of any sedge (opinion of course), which are produced in early spring. They are rather unique in that they are stark white. This has led some to believe that this specie is insect pollinated. Whether or not this is a true pollinator syndrome or just a casual observation is yet to be seen. Either way, encountering this plant in flower would be a truly special occurrence.

Due to habitat loss, there is a lot of fear that remaining isolated populations of this wonderful endemic are at increased risk of genetic bottlenecking. DNA analysis of some populations offer hope as the more restricted populations still show signs of ample genetic diversity. Still, time may prove otherwise as more and more individuals are lost to careless development. In the mean time, efforts are being made at conserving this species into the future.

Photo Credit: Will Stuart (http://bit.ly/1CWohbw)

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CYFR4

http://www.naturalheritage.state.pa.us/factsheets/15169.pdf

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/B:GENE.0000041049.91375.8c#/page-1

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4031748?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.georgiawildlife.com/sites/default/files/uploads/wildlife/nongame/pdf/accounts/plants/cymophyllus_fraserianus.pdf

http://www.georgiawildlife.com/sites/default/files/uploads/legacy_assets/Documents/cymofr.pdf

Plight of the Panda: a bamboo story

There are few creatures more iconic than the giant panda. These bears are the poster children for conservation movements around the world. Unlike their ursine relatives, pandas have abandoned carnivory for a diet that consists almost entirely of bamboo. In the light of human destruction, specialist lifestyles like the pandas are a risky strategy. It doesn't take much to upset such obligate relationships and humans are quite proficient at doing just that. However, the plight of the giant panda has just as much to do with the ecology of its food source as it does man-made destruction of its habitat.

Essentially giant grasses, the bamboo tribe consists of over 1,400 species worldwide. Not only are bamboo some of the tallest grasses in the world, they are also some of the fastest growing plants. Some have been known to grow 250 cm (90 in) in only 24 hours! As typical with grasses, bamboo can reproduce via underground rhizomes, forming dense stands of clones. Entire forests can be made up of the clones of only a few individuals.

The strangest part of bamboo ecology is that they rarely flower. A typical bamboo will live for 20 to 60 years before flowering, with some species taking well over 100 years. As such, bamboo experiences mast flowering events, with entire bamboo forests flowering all at once. After flowering and setting seed, the bamboo dies. Entire bamboo forests are lost in only a matter of weeks.

There have been many hypotheses put forth to explain this and while each has likely played a role in the evolution of this strategy, these mast flowering and subsequent death of bamboo forests probably serve to ensure the survival of the next generation. If the adults were to live through flowering and seed set, it is likely that the thick canopy of the parents would be too much for young seedlings to overcome. What's more, mass die offs create a significant fuel load for fires to sweep through. However catastrophic a fire may be, it reduces competition for bamboo seedlings.

Before humans fragmented their habitat, giant pandas had no trouble dealing with mass bamboo die offs. They simply migrated to a new bamboo forest. Anymore today, they cannot do that. When a bamboo forest flowers and dies, pandas in that area have nowhere to go. They simply starve to death. Because of this, pandas now occupy a mere fraction of their former range. What intact bamboo forests remain are restricted to the highlands of the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces.

Despite considerable success in the captive breeding of pandas, there is simply not enough habitat to support their recovery in the wild. Because of this, captive breeding programs have come under harsh criticism. It has been argued that the massive amounts of money spent on captive breeding of pandas could be spent on habitat conservation projects elsewhere. No matter where you stand on the subject, there is no denying that pandas fall under the charismatic megafauna syndrome. They captivate the hearts and minds of people all over the globe. They also encourage the masses to open up their wallets. Sadly, it is probably too late giant pandas in the wild. If anything else, they certainly serve as a stark reminder of the importance of habitat conservation on a large scale.

Photo Credit: Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo (http://bit.ly/1qDX21K) and Daniel J. Layton (Wikimedia Commons)

Further Reading:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/303243?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.completebamboo.com/bamboo_behaviors.html

The Darth Vader Begonia

Cue the Imperial March, it is time to talk about the Darth Vader Begonia. This atramentous plant had only been known to the world since 2014. The discovery of this species (as well as two other new Begonia species) occured in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. This region is a hot spot for plant diversity and this is especially true for begonias. A combination of diverse terrain and varied microclimates have led to an explosion of speciation events resulting in endemic species found nowhere else in the world.

With its leaves so deeply green that they almost appear black and deep red flowers it's not a stretch to imagine why this begonia has been named Begonia darthvaderiana. Until 2014, no one had ever laid eyes on this species, not even the locals. It was found growing in the deep shade of a forested cliff mixed in among other shade-loving vegetation. It is likely that the dark coloration of its leaves enables it to take advantage of what little sunlight makes it down to the forest floor.

Not long after its discovery was reported, something alarming happened. The so-called Darth Vader begonia began appearing for sale online. With a price tag of $80+, this is one expensive little plant. Apparently a plant poacher from Taiwan managed to smuggle some plants out of the country. This is especially upsetting because of its extreme rarity. Despite its namesake, the force is not strong enough to protect this species from greedy collectors. If you have somehow managed to obtain one of these plants, please do everything in your power to propagate it. Plants produced in captivity take pressure off of wild populations.

This was not the only new begonia species to be named after a Star Wars character. A larger species with green and silver leaves was given the scientific name of Begonia amidalae after Queen Amidala. It too is endemic to the region. The future of these plants as well as many others hangs in the balance. A growing human population is putting pressure on the rainforests of Borneo. As more and more forest is lost to development, countless endemic species are disappearing with it. This is yet another example of why land conservation is a must. Please consider lending your support to organizations such as the Rainforest Trust. Together, we can ensure that there are wild spaces left.

CLICK HERE TO HELP LAND CONSERVATION EFFORTS IN BORNEO

Photo Credit: Che-Wei Lin, Shih-Wen Chung, & Ching-I Peng

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

The Smallest and Rarest Water Lily

Nymphaea thermarum is both the smallest and the rarest water lily in the world. It is so rare that it no longer exists in the wild. Back in 1987 it was discovered growing in the mud of a hot spring located in Rwanda, Africa. The botanist who discovered it, Eberhard Fischer, realized that it was quite rare and collected a few specimens to bring back to Germany. Indeed it has never been found growing anywhere else. This was a wise decision on his part because after decades of habitat degradation, the hot spring was destroyed by locals in order to divert water for laundry. 

For years, the original specimens were not doing so hot in captivity. It was looking like this species was going to be lost forever. That was until a handful of seedlings ended up in the hands of plant germination specialist Carlos Magdalena of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Carlos saw a challenge in this species and realized that his efforts could possibly be the last chance this species had at survival. 

Carlos tried many avenues of approach to growing this species and none seemed to be working. He messed with water chemistry, nutrients, and water depth, all the while the plants seemed to languish, never reaching maturity. In a final attempt to make things work, Carlos returned to the original literature. Here he found something interesting. Apparently, N. thermarum was not growing in water at all. Instead, it seemed to only grow in the wet mud surrounding the hot spring. 

This was the key that unlocked the door to propagating this species. Instead of growing this water lily submerged like every other water lily species, Carlos decided to grow the plants as they once grew in the wild, in mud. This was it! Carlos successfully grew 8 new plants to maturity. This may seem like a small amount but for the last remaining members of a species, every little bit counts. Recently in 2009, the first of Carlos's plants flowered. This marked a milestone for this species. While it has been wiped out in the wild, this species can still persist in cultivation until experts can decide on what the best course of action is for its future. 

Further Reading:
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/nymphaea-thermarum

On Orchids and Fungi

It is no secret that orchids absolutely need fungi. Fungi not only initiate germination of their nearly microscopic seeds, the mycorrhizal relationships they form supplies the fuel needed for seedling development. These mycorrhizal fungi also continue to keep adult orchids alive throughout their lifetime. In other words, without mycorrhizal fungi there are no orchids. Preserving orchids goes far beyond preserving the plant. Despite the importance of these below-ground partners, the requirements of many mycorrhizal fungi are poorly understood.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have recently shone some light on the needs of these fungi. Their findings highlight an important concept in ecology - conservation of the system, not just the organism. Their results clearly indicate that orchid conservation requires old, intact forests.

Their experiment was beautifully designed. They added seeds and host fungi to dozens of plots in both young (50 - 70 years old) and old (120-150 years old) forests. They continued to monitor the progress of the seeds over a period of 4 years. Orchid seeds only germinated in plots where their host fungi were added. This, of course, was not very surprising.

The most interesting data they collected was data on fungal performance. As it turns out, the host fungi displayed a marked preference for older forests. In fact, the fungi were 12 times more abundant in these plots. They were even growing in areas where the researchers had not added them. What's more, fungal species were more diverse in older forests.

The researchers also noted that host fungi grew better and were more diverse in plots where rotting wood was added. This is because many mycorrhizal fungi are primarily wood decomposers. Nutrients from the decomposition of this wood are then channeled to growing orchids (as well as countless other plant species) in return for carbohydrates from photosynthesis. It is a wonderful system that functions at its best in mature forests.

This research highlights the need to protect and preserve old growth forests more than ever. Replanting forests is wonderful but it may be centuries before these forests can ever support such a diversity of life. Also, this stands as a stark reminder of the importance of soil conservation. Less obvious to most is the importance of decomposition. Without dead plant material, such fungal communities would have nothing to eat. Clearing a forest of dead wood can be just as detrimental in the long run as clearing it of living trees.

Research like this is made possible by the support of organizations such as the Native North American Orchid Conservation Center. Head on over to www.indefenseofplants.com/shop and pick up an In Defense of Plants sticker. Part of the proceeds are donated to this wonderful organization, which helps support research such as this! As this research highlights: What is good for orchids is good for the ecosystem.

Further Reading:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05468.x/abstract;jsessionid=3385C965FF5BA4CB83290005DFD47FD1.f01t02

The Plight of the Venus Fly Trap

The fact that endangered plants do not receive the same protection as animals speaks volumes towards our perception of their importance. If one were to gun down an endangered bird, regardless of where it happened, they would likely face jail time. This is a good thing. However, regardless of how endangered a plant may be, as long as it is on private property and written consent is given by the land owner, one can harvest to their hearts content. It could be the last population in existence. The point of the matter is, endangered plants only receive protection on federal lands. Even then, enforcement is difficult at best. 

Plant poaching is serious business. The victims are usually pretty species like orchids or valuable species like American ginseng. The rarer something is, the higher the price. Someone will always be willing to pay top dollar to add something rare to their collection. This story is repeated time and time again throughout the world but one particularly interesting example centers on a plant that most people are familiar with and have probably attempted to grow at one point in their lives - the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

It may be counter intuitive to believe that a plant so often sold in grocery stores could be in trouble but the Venus flytrap truly is. In the wild, Venus fly traps are what we call endemics. They are native to a small portion of land in the Carolinas and nowhere else. Sadly, the long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays that they call home are being gobbled up by golf courses, pine plantations, and housing developments. The Venus fly trap (as well as over 100 other endangered species) are quickly losing the only habitat in the world that they exist. 

Of the 107 Venus fly trap populations that remain, only 65 of them are located on protected land. If habitat destruction wasn't enough, plant collectors, both legal and illegal, descend upon this region to get their hands on wild fly traps. This, my friends, is the definition of stupidity and greed. A simple internet search will turn up countless hobbyists and nurseries alike that culture these plants in captivity. It isn't very hard to do and it can be done on a massive scale. 

There is simply no reason to have to harvest Venus fly traps from the wild. None. Despite the plight of this unique species, legal protection of the Venus fly trap is almost non existent. It is listed as a "species of special concern" in North Carolina, which basically means nothing. For poachers, this really doesn't matter. Thousands of plants are stolen from the wild on protected and unprotected lands alike. Recent felony charges against Venus fly trap poachers offer some hope that the situation may be changing but that still does nothing to protect plants that, through senseless loopholes, are collected legally. 

This circles back to those plants we often see for sale in grocery stores. If they are in a red pot with a clear plastic cup on top, you can almost guarantee they came from the Fly-Trap Farm. This company openly admits to buying and selling plants collected from the wild. Despite the afore mentioned fact that culturing them in captivity is done with relative ease, the demand for these carnivorous curiosities coupled with their perceived disposability means that wild populations of this already threatened plant are growing smaller and smaller. 

Venus fly traps are endemics. They grow nowhere else in the world. If their habitat is destroyed and demand for wild plants continues, there is no Plan B. This species will be lost to the world forever. Again, there is no reason to buy wild collected plants. Plenty of hobbyists and nurseries such as The Carnivore Girl, Meadowview Biological Research Station, and California Carnivores (just to name a few) offer reasonably priced cultivated Venus fly traps. Whereas it is difficult or even impossible to squash poaching for good, we as consumers can always vote with our wallets. 

It is tough to say whether or not there is hope for the Venus fly trap and its neighbors. This region of the Carolinas is growing in its human population. So many Venus fly trap populations have already been lost forever and more are likely to disappear in the near future. There may be hope, however, and it comes in the form of land protection. Recent acquisitions of large tracts of Venus fly trap habitat are promising. Regardless, unless the public speaks up about the plight of these long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays, no one is going to listen. Plants deserve the same protection as animals. Heck, we wouldn't have any cute and fuzzy megafauna if it were not for healthy plant populations. Protecting plants needs to be a priority. 

Photo Credit: NC Orchid (http://bit.ly/1MUlE0x)

Further Reading:
http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0803/carnivorousplants.html

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39636/0

http://wunc.org/post/north-carolina-enacts-venus-flytrap-theft-laws-how-big-problem-really#stream/0

Swamp Pink

The name "swamp pink" just doesn't do Helonias bullata justice. Yes, this species grows in wetlands and yes, the flowers are indeed pink. However, seeing one of these beauties in person will help you realize that the grandeur of such a plant cannot be summed up by any title. Sadly, if we continue to treat wetlands with rampant disregard, future generations will only see swamp pinks in the pages of a book or in an internet photo album.

Helonias_bullata_01.jpg

As stated, swamp pink likes to have its feet wet. Not just any old wetland will do though. Swamp pinks require a very stable water table with a water line that rests just below the dense rosette of strap-like leaves. At one time, this species could be found from Staten Island, New York all the way south to Georgia. There is even a disjunct population located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Today, swamp pink has been reduced to a mere fraction of this former range and now only occurs in isolated pockets of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

There are two major threats to the continued survival of this species - wetland destruction and poaching. Because it is a magnificent looking plant, it is often dug up and taken away. Sadly, swamp pink does not transplant well and plants rarely survive the ordeal. Far more deadly to this species is loss of habitat. It isn't just outright destruction of wetlands either. Alterations in the hydrology that stem from increased runoff and poor wetland buffering can cause entire populations to die off.

Both seed production and germination rates are low for this species. What's more, viable seeds suffer from minuscule dispersal distances. Because of this, establishment of new populations can be difficult. Also, since most reproduction is clonal, the gene pools of many extant populations are quite shallow. The plight of the swamp pink really brings meaning to the cultural meme "this is why we can't have nice things."

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

The Bells of Oconee

The whole point of In Defense of Plants is to remove the human element and tell the story of plants for what they are. I find their stories to be far more interesting than any anthropocentric use they might have. However, the following tale was just far too compelling to ignore. It is a story of passion and, in the end, really encompasses the reality of the species it centers around.

Asa Gray was an eminent 19th century botanist. In 1838, Gray left America for Europe in order to examine herbarium specimens which would reveal the original sources of American flora. While in Paris, Gray was pouring over collections made by Andre Michaux when he came across a poorly preserved specimen of an unnamed plant "with a habit of Pyrola and the foliage of Galax" originating from the "High Mountains of Carolina."

For whatever reason, Gray became enamored with this small pressed plant. He knew it had to be a new species. Upon returning to America, Gray went about organizing expeditions to rediscover this odd little botanical wonder. Sadly it would be another 40 years before he would see a living specimen. 

The species in question is Shortia galacifolia, better known as Oconee bells. A member of the family Diapensiaceae, Shortia is often described as a small, spreading, evergreen sub-shrub. In early spring, each plant produces a beautiful whiteish-pink, bell shaped flower. Today, Shortia is only known from a small handful of populations growing along a couple stream banks in the Southern Appalachians. The original population that Michaux collected from now lies under 980 feet of water, lost forever by the damming of the Keowee River. 

There has been a lot of speculation over why this plant is endemic. A lot of it has to do with Shortia's germination requirements. It is a plant of disturbance, relying on things like blowdowns or minor landslides to open the canopy just enough to create the perfect microclimate. As canopies close, populations languish and disappear. Fortunately for Shortia, collections have been out-planted at a handful of botanical gardens throughout the region where they grow and persist in great numbers. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:
http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1991-51-4-asa-gray-and-his-quest-for-shortia-galacifolia.pdf

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2483507?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4033240?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.jstor.org/stable/23306488?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

American Heart's Tongue Fern

When looking for ferns, it is easy to have a specific kind of search imagine in your head. Your mind's eye is tuned into the long, lacy look of dissected fronds but there are ferns out there that will challenge you to break that mold. I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting some of these fern species this year, but there is one species in particular that has really stuck out.

Meet the American hart's tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum. The hart's tongue, as you can see, is absolutely striking. Its long, slender, uncut fronds form a disheveled rosette and the sori running along the underside make each frond look like a big, green centipede. Asplenium scolopendrium itself is a wide ranging species of fern, growing on limestone outcroppings throughout Europe but populations in North America are rather sparse and disjunct. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as a threatened species. There are some morphological distinctions between the European and North American populations but the major difference is in their number of chromosomes. European hart's tongues are diploid whereas North America's are tetraploid. Because of these differences, botanists consider them distinct varieties.

Why the American variety is so rare is not fully understood, but human activities have not helped matters. Mining, logging, and development have wiped out many historic populations of these ferns. Their habitat specificity mixed with their already low numbers make for little to no range expansion for most populations. They seem to grow in close association with dolomitic limestone, which is high in magnesium. 

They also seem to rely on a specific mix of bryophyte communities, low light levels, moisture, and snow pack in order to persist. Spores that land on significant bryophyte patches seem to germinate better. Young ferns seem to perform better in mixed light levels, especially near canopy gaps. It has also been shown that snow pack is directly correlated to the vigor of each population. In years with below average snow pack, the plants seem to have trouble retaining enough moisture to survive.

This is such an incredible species of fern. To lose it would mean a serious loss for our planet. There is a good effort being put forth to protect, study, grow, and form a deeper understanding with the American hart's tongue fern. The more we learn about this species, the better we can understand what it is going to take to ensure that it persists far into the future.

Photo Credit: James Johnson (http://imgur.com/a/J1Ez5)

Further Reading:
http://www.fws.gov/northeast/nyfo/es/amhtfrecovplan.pdf

http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3159/TORREY-D-11-00054.1

http://www.fs.fed.us/

http://www.centerforplantconservation.org/

Blowout Penstemon

While living and working in Wyoming, I had the chance to meet so many amazing plant species. Many of these were quite unique to the high desert environments where we were assigned. Countless hours were spent searching large swaths of land rarely visited by humans. One species of plant managed to elude me during my time in that beautiful part of the country. The plant is incredibly rare and thus a focus of federal protection and restoration efforts. 

Based on first impressions, blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) may look like any other penstemon. The similarities stop there and indeed, this is one of the most unique species of penstemon I have ever heard of. Originally it was only known from a few locations in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Recently, a few populations were discovered in Wyoming but it is by no means common. 

As its common name suggests, P. haydenii is a specialist of blowouts. These depressions in the sand are caused by blustering winds that carve out and remove all vegetation. Most plants cannot survive in these conditions. There is very little water, the sands are constantly shifting, and as the wind kicks up sand at high speeds, the abrasive force can actually cut down frail vegetation. This is where P. haydenii excels. 

It has a thick, waxy cuticle covering its stem and leaves that protect it from this sandblasting effect as well as drought. The seeds of these species are dispersed by wind and have extreme longevity in the soil. They can remain dormant for decades until the right conditions are present for them to germinate. P. haydenii seeds need at least 2 weeks of steady moisture and lots of abrasion from sand in order to break dormancy. Research has shown that these conditions are only ever present one out of every 8 to 10 years. As a result, P. haydenii has a debilitatingly small recruitment window. 

This rarity has placed it on the endangered species list. Ironically, the very regulations that were put into place to control range degradation by cattle ranchers may have caused serious declines in this species. It was once common practice to over-graze the land where P. haydenii is found and as a result, vegetation became sparse. This increased the likelihood of blowout formation, which favored P. haydenii. Fire suppression is another threat. Regular fires help kill back vegetation that would otherwise outcompete P. haydenii

With droughts on the increase and human activities expanding into areas where the few remaining populations of P. haydenii occur, the future of this strange little endemic is uncertain. There has been a lot of effort to save and restore this species numbers but it is by no means the end of the story. Only time will tell...

Photo Credit: Vernon Jenewein Vljenewein

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=peha12

http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=Q2EX

The Tallest of Palms

High up in a mountain valley in Colombia grows one of the most remarkable palms in the world. Known scientifically as Ceroxylon quindiuense, the Quindío wax palm towers like a lanky monolith above the surrounding vegetation. Not only is this the tallest species of palm in the world, it is, by extension, the tallest monocot as well.

Standing at heights of over 160 feet, the Quindío wax palm looks all the stranger with its narrow trunk and tuft of fronds all the way at the top. It is called a wax palm because members of this genus produce a waxy substance from their trunk. In the past, this wax was harvested for its use in making torches. Until electricity became widely available, these palms were felled en masse for this purpose.

Quindío wax palms are slow to mature. For at least 15 years they focus much of their energy on radial or outward growth of the trunk. For 15 years, all the tree puts out are three pinnate leaves. Things change once the tree hits 15. It will begin its climb into the sky. Every year it sheds leaves, which creates a dark ring around the trunk. Because of this, it is easy to estimate the approximate age of any given wax palm. Count the rings and add 15 years for stem development plus another 5 for a full crown. It is believed that these palms can take upwards of 80 years to reach sexual maturity!

Because of its limited geographic range, Quindío wax palms are at risk of extinction. The young fronds are favorites among Catholics of the region for their use in Palm Sunday ceremonies. Stands that exhibit heavy harvesting have a hard time of recovering. At the same time, their native range is quickly being converted to pasture land as well as other forms of agriculture. Even if trees are left standing, their seeds find it difficult to germinate and survive under the altered microclimates of these human environments.

Luckily for Ceroxylon quindiuense, the government of Colombia recognizes how special this species is. Not only is it now the national tree and emblem of Colombia, its is now a protected species. All logging of Quindío wax palms is illegal. Still, major portions of their remaining populations are located within pasture lands.

Photo Credit: nuria mpascual (http://bit.ly/1CImC7T)

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1CImCEP

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/38467/0

Unlikely Allies

On the Balearic Islands of Spain, an interesting relationship has developed between a plant and an animal. What's more, this relationship seems to have developed relatively recently in the history of these two species. The players in this story are the dead horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus) and an unsuspecting lizard known as Lilford’s wall lizard (Podarcis lilfordi).

Podarcis lilfordi is a lot like other fence lizards. They spend their days basking in the sun’s warmth and hunting for insect prey. They also have a tendency to feed on nectar and pollen, making them important pollinators of a handful of plant species around the island. For the dead horse arum, however, its not about pollination.

Like most members of its family, the dead horse arum relies on trickery for sex. As its common name suggests, the dead horse arum both looks and smells like rotting meat. Unsuspecting flies looking for a meal and a place to lay their eggs find the dead horse arum quite attractive in this regard. The plant even steps up its game a bit by producing its own heat. This helps volatilize its smell as well as to make it a cozy place worth investigating. Studies have found that during the peak flowering period, the inflorescence can be upwards of 24 °C (50 °F) warmer than its surroundings.

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As one would expect, this has caught the attention of the cold blooded lizards. Enticed by the heat source, lizards basking on the spathe quickly realize that the plant is also a great place to hunt. Flies attracted to and trapped by the flowers make an easy meal. On the surface this would seem counterproductive for the dead horse arum. What good is an animal hanging around that eats its pollinators?

The relationship doesn't end here though. At some point in recent history, a handful of lizards figured out that the seeds of the dead horse arum also make a great meal. This behavior quickly spread through the population to the point that Podarcis lilfordi regularly break open the seed heads and consume the fleshy berries within. Here's the catch, seeds that have passed through a lizards gut are twice as likely to germinate.

Researchers have been studying this interaction since 1999. Since then, the dead horse arum has gone from being relatively rare on the island (~5,000 individuals per hectare) to a density of roughly 30,000 individuals per hectare during the 6 year span of the study! Even though the lizards eat their pollinators, the dead horse arums of Aire Island have nonetheless benefited from interactions with their cold blooded companions.

Sadly, this novel relationship may not last too long. The introduction of cats and rats to the islands has drastically reduced the population of these lizards to the point that the IUCN has listed them as an endangered species. Research will be needed to see if the dead horse arum follows in their wake.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

A Mallow Called Kankakee

In the spirit of this week's podcast I would like to take a look at a very special plant. It happens to be one of the rarest plant species in the lower 48. What may surprise you even more is that this species is endemic to a small island in the middle of the Kankakee River of Illinois called Langham Island. I am, of course, talking about the Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota).

It is strange to think of something endemic to a 20 acre island in the midwest but that seems to be the case. Though disjunct populations have been located in Indiana, experts feel that these were the result of early attempts at saving this species from extinction. In fact, the rarity of this plant was realized quite early on. A series of taxonomic revisions made it so that by the early 1920's, botanists knew that Iliamna remota was distinct from similar species such as liamna rivularis and Iliamna corei.

Despite its uniqueness, there doesn't seem to be too many explanations as to why this species is limited to Langham Island. Perhaps our recent glacial past has something to do with it. It very well could also be due to the fact that roughly 80% of Illinois has been converted to farmland. It is also due, in part, to the lack of life-giving fires that the prairies so desperately need. Indeed, after decades of attention, Langham Island and the Kankakee mallow seemed to have faded from the spotlight.

In 1981, botanists realized that most of the plants on the island had disappeared. Only 109 individuals remained and no seedlings were found. It was starting to look like this species was doomed to extinction. Growing up in their place were thick stands of Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. Luckily a handful of concerned biologists decided to light some fires. Wherever the fires burned away the invasive competition, seedlings began to emerge. Close inspection would reveal that these were the next generation of Kanakakee mallow!

A missing piece of this biological puzzle had been restored. The mallow seeds were waiting in the soil for a fire to release them from the tyranny of these invaders. It would seem that the future of this species was a bright one. Sadly, another round of budget cuts coupled with a decrease in public interest had swept through the region. When a group of botanists again went looking for this species in the summer of 2014, they realized that, to their horror, history seemed to have repeated itself. Gone were the remaining populations of the Kankakee mallow. Honeysuckle and multiflora rose had returned with vengeance.

It was clear that if this species were to be saved, Langham Island would need more dedicated attention. Thus the Friends of Langham Island was born. Since then, brush cutting and controlled burns have meant that the Kankakee mallow has once again rose from the ashes, literally. Ongoing attention from a concerned group of citizens may be the only means left at saving this endangered plant.

Photo Credit: Prairie Moon Nursery

Further Reading:
www.habitat2030.org

Check out The Brain Scoop's video about this plant

Listen to a podcast episode dedicated to the restoration of these species' habitat

The Largest Seed in the World

Coco_de_mer.jpg

For Lodoicea maldivica, better known as coco de mer, producing the largest seeds in the world may seem like a cool fact for the record books but it certainly has its drawbacks. However, as with anything in nature, selection would not allow for wasteful traits to be passed on. Costs must be offset by a reproductive advantage on some level. A recent study looked at what these tradeoffs might be for L. maldivica and what they found is pretty incredible.

With seeds clocking in at upwards of 30 kg (66 lbs.) one has to wonder what L. maldivica is up to. It was long thought that, like the coconut, seeds of this palm must be dispersed by water. However, they are simply too dense to float. Instead, seed dispersal for this peculiar species of palm is actually quite limited. They simply fall from the tree and germinate below the canopy.

This may explain why L. maldivica is endemic only to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse in the Seychelles. It's not just the seeds that are huge either. The female flowers, which are borne on separate trees than the males, are the largest female flowers of any species of palm. At 10 m (32 ft.) in diameter, the leaves are also massive, fanning outwards on petioles that can reach 2 m to 4 m (6.5 - 13 ft) in length. It goes without saying that L. maldivica is a palm full of superlatives.

Counterintuitively, the habitats in which they grow are notoriously low in nutrients. Why then would this palm invest so much energy into growing these gigantic structures? Because they tend to germinate and grow beneath their parents, the offspring of L. maldivica would appear to be at a disadvantage from the start. A recent study suggests that the answer lies in those massive leaves.

Researchers found that the areas directly beneath the adult trees were wetter and had more soil nutrients compared to the surroundings. As it turns out, L. maldivica modifies its own habitat. Those massive leaves do more than just collect sun, they also act as giant funnels. In fact, most of the water that rains down onto the canopy is collected by the leaves. In this way, everything from water, debris, and even excess pollen is funneled down to the base of each tree.

Not only is this good for the parent tree, it is also a boon for the dispersal-limited offspring. Coupled with the considerable endosperm in those massive seeds, all of this additional water and fertilizer means that seedling L. maldivica enter into the world at a distinct advantage over many other plants on the islands. All of that endosperm serves to help fuel seedling growth while it is still shaded by its parent.

Sadly, over-harvesting of the seeds has crippled natural reproduction for L. maldivica. This coupled with habitat destruction paints a bleak picture for this record-holding palm. It has already been lost from three other Seychelles islands. Luckily there are many conservation efforts underway that are aimed at saving L. maldivica. The Seychelles are now considered a World Heritage Site and many of the wild populations of this palm lie within national parks.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Common Yet Endangered Palms

Raise you hand if you have ever had a parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans). I see most of you have raised your hands. Palms in the genus Chamaedorea are the most commonly kept palms on the market. They are small, very shade tolerant, and nearly indestructible. The clear winner in this regard is the parlor palm. We have all given these little palms a shot at one time or another. They are so common that we rarely give a second thought as to where they come from. Surely they did not evolve in a nursery. It may surprise you that for as ubiquitous as these palms are, they are actually quite threatened in the wild.

The genus Chamaedorea is endemic to sub-tropical forests of the Americas and is comprised of roughly 80 species. They are understory palms that are most at home under the deep shade of the canopy. Most species are generally pretty small, rarely growing over 10 feet. All of these factors add up to some resilient and fun houseplants. It doesn't take much to keep them happy. Every once in a while they will produce flowers. Though small, they are often brightly colored. The preferred method for mass cultivation is via seed. However, seed production outside of their native range is notoriously difficult and often requires human intervention. For this reason, a vast majority of nursery grown palms are grown from wild collected seeds.

This may not seem like a bad deal until you look at the numbers. I have seen reports of over 500 million seeds exported from Mexico annually. Couple this with the fact that many species of Chamaedorea are known to grow in very restricted ranges and suddenly the picture becomes very bleak. Over collecting of seeds has decimated wild populations. Without seeds there is no recruitment, no seedlings to take the place of adult plants.

Another considerable threat to these palms comes from the cut flower industry. Palm fronds are notoriously gorgeous and many people like to include them in their displays. Most of the leaves cut come from wild plants. Normally palm fronds are harvested in a manner that doesn't kill the plant, however, in Mexico children are often employed to collect them and their lack of experience can severely damage wild populations.

On top of all of this, the forests in which these palms grow are now being converted to agriculture. If actions are not taken to limit the abuse of wild populations, it is likely that some of the most commonly encountered house plants are going to be extinct in the wild. This is a hard pill to swallow. If you have any of these species growing in your home, take care of them. Perhaps knowing how uncertain the future is for many of these palms will earn them a little more respect.

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Here is a list of some of the most threatened species in this genus:

Chamaedorea amabilis
Chamaedorea klotzschiana
Chamaedorea metalica
Chamaedorea pumila
Chamaedorea sullivaniorum
Chamaedorea tuerckheimii

Photo Credits: Michael Wolf (http://bit.ly/16suMsf), scott.zona (http://bit.ly/1zHdUII),

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1ADC3mw