Saving Bornean Peatlands is a Must For Conservation

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The leading cause of extinction on this planet is loss of habitat. As an ecologist, it pains me to see how frequently this gets ignored. Plants, animals, fungi - literally every organism on this planet needs a place to live. Without habitat, we are forced to pack our flora and fauna into tiny collections in zoos and botanical gardens, completely disembodied from the environment that shaped them into what we know and love today. That’s not to say that zoos and botanical gardens don’t play critically important roles in conservation, however, if we are going to stave off total ecological meltdown, we must also be setting aside swaths of land.

There is no way around it. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Land conservation must be a priority both at the local and the global scale. Wild spaces support life. They buffer it from storms and minimize the impacts of deadly diseases. Healthy habitats filter the water we drink and, for many people around the globe, provide much of the food we eat. Every one of us can think back to our childhood and remember a favorite stretch of stream, meadow, or forest that has since been gobbled up by a housing development. For me it was a forested stream where I learned to love the natural world. I would spend hours playing in the creek, climbing trees, and capturing bugs to show my parents. Since that time, someone leveled the forest, built a house, and planted a lawn. With that patch of forest went all of the insects, birds, and wildflowers it once supported.

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Scenarios like this play out all too often and sadly on a much larger scale than a backyard. Globally, forests have felt taken the brunt of human development. Though it is hard to get a sense of the scope of deforestation on a global scale, the undisputed leaders in deforestation are Brazil and Indonesia. Though the Amazon gets a lot of press, few may truly grasp the gravity of the situation playing out in Southeast Asia.

Deforestation is a clear and present threat throughout tropical Asia. This region is growing both in its economy and population by about 6% every year and this growth has come at great cost to the environment. Indonesia (alongside Brazil) accounts for 55% of the world’s deforestation rates. This is a gut-wrenching statistic because Indonesia alone is home to the most extensive area of intact rainforest in all of Asia. So far, nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared. It was estimated that by 2010, 2.3 million hectares of peatland forests had been felled and this number shows little signs of slowing. Experts believe that if these rates continue, this area could lose the remainder of its forests by 2056.

Consider the fact that Southeast Asia contains 6 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots and you can begin to imagine the devastating blow that the levelling of these forests can have. Much of this deforestation is done in the name of agriculture, and of that, palm oil and rubber take the cake. Southeast Asia is responsible for 86% of the world’s palm oil and 87% of the world’s natural rubber. What’s more, the companies responsible for these plantations are ranked among some of the least sustainable in the world.

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Borneo is home to a bewildering array of life. Researchers working there are constantly finding and describing new species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Of the roughly 15,000 plant species known from Borneo, botanists estimate that nearly 5,000 (~34%) of them are endemic. This includes some of the more charismatic plant species such as the beloved carnivorous pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes. Of these, 50 species have been found growing in Borneo, many of which are only known from single mountain tops.

It has been said that nowhere else in the world has the diversity of orchid species found in Borneo. To date, roughly 3,000 species have been described but many, many more await discovery. For example, since 2007, 51 new species of orchid have been found. Borneo is also home to the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii. It, along with its relatives, are parasites, living their entire lives inside of tropical vines. These amazing plants only ever emerge when it is time to flower and flower they do! Their superficial resemblance to a rotting carcass goes much deeper than looks alone. These flowers emit a fetid odor that is proportional to their size, earning them the name “carrion flowers.”

Rafflesia arnoldii  in all of its glory.

Rafflesia arnoldii in all of its glory.

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If deforestation wasn’t enough of a threat to these botanical treasures, poachers are having considerable impacts on Bornean botany. The illegal wildlife trade throughout southeast Asia gets a lot of media attention and rightfully so. At the same time, however, the illegal trade of ornamental and medicinal plants has gone largely unnoticed. Much of this is fueled by demands in China and Vietnam for plants considered medicinally valuable. At this point in time, we simply don’t know the extent to which poaching is harming plant populations. One survey found 347 different orchid species were being traded illegally across borders, many of which were considered threatened or endangered. Ever-shrinking forested areas only exacerbate the issue of plant poaching. It is the law of diminishing returns time and time again.

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But to lump all Bornean forests under the general label of “rainforest” is a bit misleading. Borneo has multitude of forest types and one of the most globally important of these are the peatland forests. Peatlands are vital areas of carbon storage for this planet because they are the result of a lack of decay. Whereas leaves and twigs quickly breakdown in most rainforest situations, plant debris never quite makes it that far in a peatland. Plant materials that fall into a peatland stick around and build up over hundreds and thousands of years. As such, an extremely thick layer of peat is formed. In some areas, this layer can be as much as 20 meters deep! All the carbon tied up in the undecayed plant matter is carbon that isn’t finding its way back into our atmosphere.

Sadly, tropical peatlands like those found in Borneo are facing a multitude of threats. In Indonesia alone, draining, burning, and farming (especially for palm oil) have led to the destruction of 1 million hectares (20%) of peatland habitat in only one decade. The fires themselves are especially worrisome. For instance, it was estimated that fires set between 1997-1998 and 2002-2003 in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations released 200 million to 1 billion tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. Considering that 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in the Indo-Malayan region, these numbers are troubling.

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The peatlands of Borneo are totally unlike peatlands elsewhere in the world. Instead of mosses, gramminoids, and shrubs, these tropical peatlands are covered in forests. Massive dipterocarp trees dominate the landscape, growing on a spongey mat of peat. What’s more, no water flows into these habitats. They are fed entirely by rain. The spongey nature of the peat mat holds onto water well into the dry season, providing clean, filtered water where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.

This lack of decay coupled with their extremely acidic nature and near complete saturation makes peat lands difficult places for survival. Still, life has found a way, and Borneo’s peatlands are home to a staggering diversity of plant life. They are so diverse, in fact, that when I asked Dr. Craig Costion, a plant conservation officer for the Rainforest Trust, for something approaching a plant list for an area of peatland known as Rungan River region, he replied:

“Certainly not nor would there ever be one in the conceivable future given the sheer size of the property and the level of diversity in Borneo. There can be as many as a 100 species per acre of trees in Borneo... Certainly a high percentage of the species would only be able to be assigned to a genus then sit in an herbarium for decades until someone describes them.”

And that is quite remarkable when you think about it. When you consider that the Rungan River property is approximately 385,000 acres, the number of plant species to consider quickly becomes overwhelming. To put that in perspective, there are only about 500 tree species native to the whole of Europe! And that’s just considering the trees. Borneo’s peatlands are home to myriad plant species from liverworts, mosses, and ferns, to countless flowering plants like orchids and others. We simply do not know what kind of diversity places like Borneo hold. One could easily spend a week in a place like the Rungan River and walk away with dozens of plant species completely new to science. Losing a tract of forest in such a biodiverse is a huge blow to global biodiversity.

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Nepenthes ampullaria  relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Nepenthes ampullaria relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Also, consider that all this plant diversity is supporting even more animal diversity. For instance, the high diversity of fruit trees in this region support a population of over 2,000 Bornean orangutans. That is nearly 4% of the entire global population of these great apes! They aren’t alone either, the forested peatlands of Borneo are home to species such as the critically endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon, the proboscis monkey, the rare flat-headed cat, and the oddly named otter civet. All these animals and more rely on the habitat provided by these forests. Without forests, these animals are no more.

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The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

At this point, many of you may be feeling quite depressed. I know how easy it is to feel like there is nothing you can do to help. Well, what if I told you that there is something you can do right now to save a 385,000 acre chunk of peatland rainforest? That’s right, by heading over to the Rainforest Trust’s website (https://www.rainforesttrust.org/project/saving-stronghold-critically-endangered-bornean-orangutan/) you can donate to their campaign to buy up and protect the Rungan River forest tract.

Click on the logo to learn more!

Click on the logo to learn more!

By donating to the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part in protecting biodiversity in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. What’s more, you can rest assured that your money is being used effectively. The Rainforest Trust consistently ranks as one of the top environmental protection charities in the world. Over their nearly three decades of operation, the Rainforest Trust has protected more than 15.7 million acres of land in over 20 countries. Like I said in the beginning, habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction on this planet. Without habitat, we have nothing. Plants are that habitat and by supporting organizations such as the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part to fight the biggest threats our planet faces. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

Dipterocarp Forests

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Spend any amount of time reading about tropical forests around the world and you are destined to come across mention of dipterocarp forests. If you're anything like me, your initial thought might have been something along the lines of "what the heck does that mean?" Does it describe some sort of structural aspect of the forest, or perhaps a climatic component? To my surprise, dipterocarp forests refer to any forest in which the dominant species of trees are members of the family Dipterocarpaceae. Thus, I was introduced to a group of plants entirely new to me!

The family Dipterocarpaceae is comprised of 16 genera and roughly 700 species. Its members can be found throughout the tropical regions of the world, though they hit their greatest numbers in the forests of southeast Asia and specifically Borneo. As far as habit is concerned, the dipterocarps are largely arborescent, ranging in size from intermediate shrubs to towering emergent canopy trees. If you have watched a documentary on or been to a tropical forest, it is very likely that you have seen at least one species of dipterocarp.

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The dipterocarps have a long evolutionary history that stretches back to the early Triassic on the supercontinent of Gondwana. As this massive landmass proceeded to break apart, the early ancestors of this group were carried along with them. Today we can find members of this family in tropical regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. Taxonomically speaking, the family is further divided into three sub families that, to some degree, reflect this distribution.  The subfamily Monotoideae is found in Africa and Colombia, the subfamily Pakaraimoideae is found in Guyana, and the subfamily Dipterocarpoideae is found in Asia.

Biologically, the dipterocarps are quite fascinating. Some species can grow quite large. Three genera - Dryobalanops, Hopea, and Shorea - regularly produce trees of over 80 meters (260 feet) in height. The world record for dipterocarps belongs to an individual of Shorea faguetiana, which stands a whopping 93 meters (305 feet) tall! That's not to say all species are giants. Many dipterocarps live out their entire lives in the forest understory.

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For species growing in seasonal environments, flowering occurs annually or nearly so. Also, for dipterocarps that experience regular dry seasons, deciduousness is a common trait. For those growing in non-seasonal environments, however, flowering is more irregular and leaves are largely evergreen. Some species will flower once every 3 to 5 years whereas others will flower once every decade or so. In such cases, flowering occurs en masse, with entire swaths of forest bursting into bloom all at once. These mast years often lead to similar aged trees that all established in the same year. Though more work needs to be done on this, it is thought that various bee species comprise the bulk of the dipterocarp pollinator guild. 

Ecologically speaking, one simply cannot overstate the importance of this family. Wherever they occur, dipterocarps often form the backbone of the forest ecosystem. Their number and biomass alone is worth noting, however, these trees also provide fruits, pollen, nectar, and habitat for myriad forms of life. The larger dipterocarps are often considered climax species, meaning that they dominate in regions comprised of mostly primary forest. For the most part, these trees are able to take advantage of more successional habitats, however, this has been shown to be severely limited by the availability of localized seed sources. 

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Since we are on the topic of regeneration, a conversation about dipterocarps would not be complete if we didn't touch on logging. These trees are massive components of tropical economies. Their wood is highly coveted for a a variety of uses I won't go into here. The point is that, on a global scale, dipterocarp forests have taken a huge hit. Many species within this family are now threatened with extinction. Logging, both legal and illegal, specifically aimed at dipterocarps has seen the destruction of millions of acres of old growth dipterocarp forests. With them goes all of the life that they support.

It's not enough to protect individual species. We need to rally behind whole ecosystem protection. Without it, we literally have nothing. Luckily there are groups like the Center For International Forestry Research and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia that are working hard on research, conservation, and improved forestry standards in an effort to ease up on the detrimental practices currently in place. Still, these efforts are not enough either. Without the care, concern, and most important, the funding from folks like us, little can be done to stop the tide. That is why supporting land conservation agencies is one of the most powerful things we can do for this planet and for each other. 

Some great land conservation organizations worth supporting:

The Rainforest Trust - https://www.rainforesttrust.org/

The Nature Conservancy - http://bit.ly/2B0hFm

The Rainforest Alliance - https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/

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

urther Reading: [1]

A Bat-Pollinated Passion Flower From Ecuador

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Say "hello" to one of Passiflora's most recent additions, the bat-pollinated Passiflora unipetala. The first specimens of this vine were discovered back in 2009 by Nathan Muchhala while studying flower visiting bats in northern Ecuador. It is a peculiar member of the genus to say the least. 

One of the most remarkable features of this plant are its flowers. Unlike its multi-petaled cousins, this species stands out in producing a single large petal, which is unique for not only the genus, but the whole family as well. The petal is quite large and resembles a bright yellow roof covering the anthers and stigma. At the base of the flower sits the nectar chamber. The body of the plant consists of a vine that has been observed to grow upwards of 6 meters up into the canopy.

Flowering in this species occurs at night. Their large size, irregular funnel shape, and bright yellow coloring all point to a pollination syndrome with bats. Indeed, pollen of this species has been found on the fur of at least three different bat species. Multiple observations (pictured here) of bats visiting the flowers helped to confirm. Oddly enough for a bat-pollinated plant, the flowers produce no detectable odor whatsoever. However, another aspect of its unique floral morphology is worth noting. 

The surface of the flower has an undulating appearance. Also, the sepals themselves have lots of folds and indentations, including lots of dish-shaped pockets. It is thought that these might help the flower support the weight of visiting bats. They may also have special acoustic properties that help the bats locate the flowers via echolocation. Though this must be tested before we can say for sure, other plants have converged on a similar strategy (read here and here).

As it stands currently, Passiflora unipetala is endemic to only a couple high elevation cloud forests in northern Ecuador. It has only ever been found at two locations and sadly a landslide wiped out the type specimen from which the species description was made. As such, its introduction to the world came complete with a spot on the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered. Luckily, the two localities in which this species has been found are located on privately protected properties. Let's just hope more populations are discovered in the not-too-distant future.

Photo Credits: [1] 

Further Reading: [1]

Botanical Gardens & Plant Conservation

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Botanical gardens are among my favorite places in the world. I find them both relaxing and stimulating, offering something for all of our senses. Botanical gardens are valuable for more than just their beauty. They serve a deeper purpose than simply showcasing endless poinsettia varieties or yet another collection of Dale Chihuly pieces (a phenomenon I can't quite wrap my head around). Botanical gardens are vitally important centers of ex situ plant conservation efforts.

Ex situ conservation literally means "off site conservation," when plants are grown within the confines of a botanical garden, often far away from their native habitats. This is an important process in and of its own because housing plants in different locations safeguards them from complete annihilation. Simply put, don't put all your endangered eggs in one basket.

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I don't think botanical gardens get enough credit for their conservation efforts. Sadly, such endeavors are often overshadowed. That's not to say we don't have a good handle on what is going on. In fact, a study published in August of 2017 looked at the status of ex situ plant conservation efforts around the globe.

The paper outlines a conservative estimate of the diversity of plants found in botanical gardens and highlights areas in desperate need of improvement. Utilizing a dataset compiled by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the team found that the world's botanical gardens contain somewhere around 30% or 105,209 of the 350,699 plant species currently known to science. In total, they estimate humanities various living collections contain representatives from roughly 90% of the known plant families. That is pretty impressive considering the scale of plant diversity on our planet.

Proportions of the world's plants represented in botanical garden collections ( Source )

Proportions of the world's plants represented in botanical garden collections (Source)

Their research didn't stop there either. The team dove deeper into these numbers and found that there are some serious discrepancies in these estimates. For instance (and to my surprise), botanical gardens house more temperate plant species than they do tropical plant species. They estimated that nearly 60% of the world's temperate plant species are being grown in botanical gardens around the world but only 25% of tropical species. This is despite the fact that most of the world's plants are, in fact, tropical.

Similarly, only 5% of botanical garden collections are dedicated to non-vascular plants like mosses and liverworts. This is a shame not only because these plants are quite interesting and beautiful, but they also are descendants of the first plant lineages to make their way onto land. They are vital to understanding plant evolution as well as plant diversity.

As I mentioned above, ex situ conservation efforts are critical in fighting plant extinctions across the globe. With 1/5 of the world's plants at risk of extinction, the authors of the paper were particularly interested in how botanical gardens were doing in this regard. They found that although various institutions are growing nearly half of all the known threatened plant species on this planet, only 10% of their collection space is devoted to these species. It goes without saying that this number needs to improve if we are to stave off further extinctions.

Taken together, this study paints an interesting and informative picture of botanical garden collections on a global scale. They are doing amazing work to protect and showcase plant diversity. However, there is always a need for improvement. More space and effort needs to be made in ex situ plant conservation efforts. More plants, especially little known tropical species, need to be brought into cultivation. More space must be devoted to propagating threatened and endangered species. Finally, more attention must be given to natural plant diversity rather than gaudy cultivars. If you love botanical gardens as much as I do, please support them. As the authors so eloquently summarize, "Without deep sustained public support, the plant conservation movement will struggle."

Further Reading: [1]

 

 

An Orchid of Hybrid Origin

Hybridization is an often overlooked mechanism for evolution. We are taught in high school that hybrids such as mules and ligers are one-off's, evolutionary dead ends doomed to a life of sterility. Certainly this holds true in many instances. Species separated by great lengths of time and space are simply incompatible. However, there are instances throughout the various kingdoms of life in which hybrids do turn out viable.

If they are different enough from either parent, their creation may lead to speciation down the line. Such events have been found in ferns, butterflies, and even birds. One particular example of a hybrid species only recently came to my attention. While touring the Atlanta Botanical Garden I came across a fenced off bed of plants. Inside the fence were orchids standing about knee height. At the top of each plant was a brilliant spike of orange flowers. "Ah," I exclaimed, "the orange fringed orchid!" The reply I got was unexpected - "Sort of."

What I had stumbled across was neither the orange fringed orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) nor the crested yellow orchid (Platanthera cristata). What I was looking at were a small handful of the globally imperiled Chapman's fringed orchid (Platanthera chapmanii). Though there is some debate about the origins of this species, many believe it to be a naturally occurring hybrid of the other two. In many ways it is a perfect intermediate. Despite its possible hybrid origins, it nonetheless produces viable seed. What's more, it readily hybridizes with both parental species as well as a handful of other Platanthera with which it sometimes shares habitat.

Despite occasionally being found along wet roadside ditches, this species is rapidly losing ground. The wet meadows and pine savannas it prefers are all too quickly being leveled for housing and other forms of development. Although it once ranged from southeast Texas to northern Florida, and southeast Georgia, it has since been reduced to less than 1000 individuals scattered among these three states.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though. Many efforts are being put forth to protect and conserve this lovely orchid. Greenhouse propagation in places like the Atlanta Botanical Garden are helping supplement wild populations while at the same time, maintaining genetic diversity. New populations have been located in Georgia and are now under protection. Though not out of the woods yet, this species serves as a reminder that a little bit of effort can go a long way.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

1,730 New Plant Species Were Described in 2016

Manihot debilis

Manihot debilis

The discovery of a new animal species is celebrated the world over. At the same time, plants are lucky to ever make headlines. This is a shame considering that plants form the backbone of all terrestrial ecosystems. The conversation is starting to change, however, as more and more people are waking up to the fact that plants are fascinating organisms in their own right. In a recent addition of Kew Garden's State of the World's Plants, they report on 1,730 newly described plant species from all over the world.

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The discovery of these new plants species is truly a global event. Central and South America, Africa, tropical Asia, and Madagascar saw the addition of many intriguing taxonomic novelties. For instance, Malaysia can now add 29 new species of Begonia to their flora. Africa can now boast to be the home of the largest species of Bougainvillea in the world. Standing at 3 meters in height, it is an impressive sight to behold. Madagascar was particularly fruitful (pun intended), adding 150 new species, subspecies, and varieties of Croton all thanks to the diligent work of the late Alan Radcliffe-Smith. 

Commicarpus macrothamnum  Photo Credit: Ib Friis

Commicarpus macrothamnum Photo Credit: Ib Friis

One of the most exciting finds from Madagascar was a new genus of climbing bamboos named Sokinochloa. So far only 7 species have been named. The key to unlocking the diversity of this new genus lies in their flowers, which are not produced on a regular basis. Like many bamboos, the Sokinochloa produce flowers at intervals of 10 to 50+ years. The new discoveries did not consist entirely of small understory herbs either. Some of those 1,730 plants were massive forest trees.

Sokinochloa australis

Sokinochloa australis

One of these new tree species is Africa's first endemic species of Calophyllum (Calophyllaceae). They were discovered during a survey for a uranium mine and, with fewer than 10 mature individuals, are considered critically endangered. Expeditions in Central America and the Andes turned up 27 new tree species in the genus Sloanea (Elaeocarpaceae) as well as 10 new species Trichilia, a genus of trees belonging to the mahogany family (Meliaceae).

The list could go on and on. Even more exiting is the fact that 2016 wasn't a particularly exceptional year for new plant discoveries. An estimated 2,000 new plant species are discovered on an annual basis. We aren't even close to grasping the full extent of plant diversity on this planet. What plants desperately need, however, is more attention. More attention leads to more scrutiny, more scrutiny leads to better understanding, and better understanding leads to improved conservation efforts. We could be doing a lot better with conservation efforts if we considered the plants whose very existence is essential for all life as we know it.

Barleria mirabilis  Photo Credit :  Quentin Luke

Barleria mirabilis Photo Credit: Quentin Luke

Tibouchina rosanae  Photo Credit: W Milliken

Tibouchina rosanae Photo Credit: W Milliken

Englerophytum paludosum  Photo Credit: Xander van der Burgt

Englerophytum paludosum Photo Credit: Xander van der Burgt

You can download your own copy of the State of the World's Plants by clicking here

All photos thanks to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew unless otherwise noted.

Meet Snorkelwort

If vernal pools are considered ephemeral then granite pools are downright fleeting. Any organism that specializes in such a habitat must be ready to deal with extremes. That is what makes a little plant known scientifically as Gratiola amphiantha so darn cool. It's what also makes it so darn threatened. 

This tiny member of the Plantaginaceae family is native to the Piedmont province of southeastern North America. It lives out its entire life in shallow pools that form in weathered granitic outcrops. One must really think about the specificity of this sort of habitat to truly appreciate what this little aquatic herb is up against. Pools must be deep enough to hold water just long enough but not too deep to allow normal plant succession. They must have just enough soil to allow these plants to take root but the soil must be thin enough to prevent other vegetation from taking over. They must also be low in nutrients to limit the growth of algae that would otherwise cloud the water. Needless to say, this makes suitable habitat for snorkelwort hard to come by. 

When such conditions are met, however, snorkelwort can be quite prolific. Seeds of this species germinate in late fall and early winter when only a thing veneer of water covers the equally thin soils. Individual plants form a small rosette that sits in wait until rains fill the tiny pools. Once submerged, the rosettes send up thin stem-like structures called scapes. These scapes terminate in two tiny bracts that float at the waters surface. Between the two bracts emerges tiny, white, five petaled flowers. Submerged flowers are also produced but these are cleistogamous flowers that never open and only self-pollinate. This ensures that at least some seeds are produced every growing season. 

When you consider all aspects of its ecology, it is no wonder that snorkelwort is teetering on the edge of extinction. The granitic pools in which it lives are very sensitive to change. It doesn't take much to make them totally unsuitable places to live. Protecting them alone is hard enough. Mining, pollution, littering, and even casual hikers can wipe out entire populations in an instant. Even populations living within the boarders of protected parks have been extirpated by hiking and littering. When you live on the edge, it doesn't take much to fall off. In total, only about 31 populations scattered through Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are all that remains of this overlooked little plant. 

The upside to all of this is that numerous stake holders, both public and private, are invested in the ongoing success of this species. Private land owners whose land supports snorkelwort populations are cooperating with botanists to ensure that this species continues to find what it needs to survive. Luckily a sizable chunk of the remaining populations are large enough to support ample genetic diversity and, at this point in time, don't seem to be at any risk of destruction. For a little plant like snorkelwort, a little attention can go a long way. If you know a spot where this interesting little plant grows, tread lightly and appreciate it from a safe distance. 

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

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

 

Important Lessons From Ascension Island

Located in the middle of the South Atlantic, Ascension Island is probably not on the top of anyone's travel list. This bleak volcanic island doesn't have much to offer the casual tourist but what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in a rich and bizarre history. Situated about 2,200 km east of Brazil and 3,200 km west of Angola, this remote island is home to one of the most remarkable ecological experiments that is rarely talked about. The roots of this experiment stem back to a peculiar time in history and the results have so much to teach the human species about botany, climate, extinction, speciation, and much more. What follows is not a complete story; far from it actually. However, my hope is that you can take away some lessons from this and, at the very least, use it as a jumping off point for future discussions. 

Ascension Island is, as land masses go, quite young. It arose from the ocean floor a mere 1 million years ago and is the result of intense volcanic activity. Estimates suggest that volcanism was still shaping this island as little as 1000 years ago. Its volcanic birth, young age, isolated conditions, and nearly non-existent soils meant that for most of its existence, Ascension Island was a depauperate place. It was essentially a desert island. Early sailors saw it as little more than a stopover point to gather turtles and birds to eat as they sailed on to other regions. It wasn't until 1815 that any permanent settlements were erected on Ascension. 

In looking for an inescapable place to imprison Napoleon Bonaparte, the Royal Navy claimed Ascension in the name of King George III. Because Napoleon had a penchant for being an escape artist, the British decided to build a garrison on the island in order to make sure Napoleon would not be rescued. In doing so, the limitations of the island quickly became apparent. There were scant soils in which to grow vegetables and fresh water was nearly nonexistent. 

The native flora of Ascension was minimal. It is estimated that, until the island was settled, only about 25 to 30 plant species grew on the island. Of those 10 (2 grasses, 2 shrubs, and 6 ferns) were considered endemic. If the garrison was to persist, something had to be done. Thus, the Green Mountain garden was established. British marines planted this garden at an elevation of roughly 2000 feet. Here the thin soils supported a handful of different fruits and vegetables. In 1836, Ascension was visited by a man named Charles Darwin. Darwin took note of the farm that had developed and, although he admired the work that was done in making Ascension "livable" he also noted that the island was "destitute of trees."

One of Ascension Island's endemic ferns -  Pteris adscensionis

One of Ascension Island's endemic ferns - Pteris adscensionis

Others shared Darwin's sentiment. The prevailing view of this time period was that any land owned by the British empire must be transformed to support people. Thus, the wheels of 'progress' turned ever forward. Not long after Darwin's visit, a botanist by the name of Joseph Hooker paid a visit to Ascension. Hooker, who was a fan of Darwin's work, shared his sentiments on the paucity of vegetation on the island. Hooker was able to convince the British navy that vegetating the island would capture rain and improve the soil. With the support of Kew Gardens, this is exactly what happened. Thus began the terraforming of Green Mountain.

For about a decade, Kew shipped something to the tune of 330 different species of plants to be planted on Ascension Island. The plants were specifically chosen to withstand the harsh conditions of life on this volcanic desert in the middle of the South Atlantic. It is estimated that 5,000 trees were planted on the island between 1860 and 1870. Most of these species came from places like Argentina and South Africa. Soon, more plants and seeds from botanical gardens in London and Cape Town were added to the mix. The most incredible terraforming experiment in the world was underway on this tiny volcanic rock. 

By the late 1870's it was clear the the experiment was working. Trees like Norfolk pines (Araucaria heterophylla), Eucalyptus spp. and figs (Ficus spp.), as well as different species of banana and bamboo had established themselves along the slopes of Green Mountain. Where there was once little more than a few species of grass, there was now the start of a lush cloud forest. The vegetation community wasn't the only thing that started to change on Ascension. Along with it changed the climate. 

Estimates of rainfall prior to these terraforming efforts are sparse at best. What we have to go on are anecdotes and notes written down by early sailors and visitors. These reports, however, paint a picture of astounding change. Before terraforming began, it was said that few if any clouds ever passed overhead and rain rarely fell. Those living on the island during the decade or so of planting attested to the fact that as vegetation began to establish, the climate of the island began to change. One of the greatest changes was the rain. Settlers on the island noticed that rain storms were becoming more frequent. Also, as one captain noted "seldom more than a day passes over now without a shower or mist on the mountain." The development of forests on Ascension were causing a shift in the island's water cycle. 

Plants are essentially living straws. Water taken up by the roots travels through their tissues eventually evaporating from their leaves. The increase in plant life on the island was putting more moisture into the air. The humid microclimate of the forest understory cooled the surrounding landscape. Water that would once have evaporated was now lingering. Pools were beginning to form as developed soils retained additional moisture.

Now, if you are anything like me, at this point you must be thinking to yourself "but what about the native flora?!" You have every right to be concerned. I don't want to paint the picture that everything was fine and dandy on Ascension Island. It wasn't. Even before the terraforming experiment began, humans and other trespassers left their mark on the local biota. With humans inevitably comes animals like goats, donkeys, pigs, and rats. These voracious mammals went to work on the local vegetation. The early ecology that was starting to develop on Ascension was rocked by these animals. Things were only made worse when the planting began.

Of the 10 endemic plants native to Ascension Island, 3 went extinct, having been pushed out by all of the now invasive plant species brought to the island. Another endemic, the Ascension Island parsley fern (Anogramma ascensionis) was thought to be extinct until four plants were discovered in 2010. The native flora of Ascension island was, for the most part, marginalized by the introduction of so many invasive species. This fact was not lost of Joseph Hooker. He eventually came to regret his ignorance to the impacts terraforming would have on the native vegetation stating “The consequences to the native vegetation of the peak will, I fear, be fatal, and especially to the rich carpet of ferns that clothed the top of the mountain when I visited it." Still, some plants have adapted to life among their new neighbors. Many of the ferns that once grew terrestrially, can now be found growing epiphytically among the introduced trees on Green Mountain. 

The Ascension Island parsley fern ( Anogramma ascensionis )

The Ascension Island parsley fern (Anogramma ascensionis)

Today Ascension Island exists as a quandary for conservation ecologists. On the one hand the effort to protect and conserve the native flora and fauna of the island is of top priority. On the other hand, the existence of possibly the greatest terraforming effort in the world begs for ecological research and understanding. A balance must be sought if both goals are to be met. Much effort is being put forth to control invasive vegetation that is getting out of hand. For instance, the relatively recent introduction of a type of mesquite called the Mexican thorn (Prosopis juliflora) threatens the breeding habitat of the green sea turtle. Efforts to remove this aggressive species are now underway. Although it is far too late to reverse what has been done to Ascension Island, it nonetheless offers us something else that may be more important in the long run: perspective.

If anything, Ascension Island stands as a perfect example of the role plants play in regulating climate. The introduction of these 330+ plant species to Ascension Island and the subsequent development of a forest was enough to completely change the weather of that region. Where there was once a volcanic desert there is a now a cloud forest. With that forest came clouds and rain. If adding plants to an island can change the climate this much, imagine what the loss of plants from habitats around the world is doing. 

Each year an estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost from this planet. As human populations continue to rise, that number is only going to get bigger. It is woefully ignorant to assume that habitat destruction isn't having an influence on global climate. It is. Plants are habitat and when they go, so does pretty much everything else we hold near and dear (not to mention require for survival). If the story of Ascension does anything, I hope it serves as a reminder of the important role plants play in the function of the ecosystems of our planet. 

The endemic Ascension spurge ( Euphorbia origanoides )

The endemic Ascension spurge (Euphorbia origanoides)

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

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

 

Ancient Green Blobs

Curious images of these strange green mounds make the rounds of social media every so often. What kind of alien life form is this? Is it a moss? Is it a fungus? The answer may surprise you!

In reality, this large mound is comprised of a colony of plants in the carrot family! Known scientifically as Azorella compacta, this species hails from the Andes and only grows between 3,200 and 4,500 metres in elevation. Its tightly compacted growth-form is an adaptation to this lifestyle, serving to prevent heat loss in such a cold and windy environment. Every so often, these mats erupt with tiny flowers, which must be a sight to behold!

The colonies expand at the rate of roughly 1.5 cm each year. Large colonies are estimated at over 3000 years old, making them some of the oldest living organisms on the planet! Sadly, the dense growth of the plant makes it highly sought after as a fuel source. Locals harvest the plant with pick axes and burn the dense mats for heat, not unlike peat from bogs. 

Because of its slow growth rate, harvesting this species has caused a serious decline in numbers. Local governments have since enacted laws to protect this species and some recovery has been documented though, with such slow growth rates, only time will tell if protection is enough. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1]

Rare African Plant Gets A Boost

The reappearance of the silver tree (Leucadendron argeteum) to the slopes of the Tokai Arboretum is so exciting. A member of the family Proteaceae, this beautifully bizarre plant was once common around Cape Town, South Africa. Sadly, their populations have declined by 74%. The cause of this decline is not surprising - deforestation, urbanization, fire sequestration, disease, and invasive species have all taken their toll on this species. With this recent discovery, however, there may be hope yet.

The plants were discovered by a team of volunteers while they were clearing the land of invasive tree cover. The seedlings were small but this species grows fast, up to 500 mm per year. A seedling today can quickly become a mature tree in only a few years. The key to their resurgence are their seeds. Silver tree seeds will not germinate under a closed canopy. Instead, they lie and wait in the soil for decades until fire clears the area of competing vegetation. Without fire, no new trees were growing in to replace dying adults. Hence the situation was looking bleak. 

The discovery of juvenile trees is worth celebrating. After a century of functioning as a pine plantation, this area just might be recovering some of its lost diversity. This species is not out of the woods yet. Experts estimate that it could take another 100 years of seed sowing and proper land management before this area can bolster a thriving silver tree population. Still, it stands as an important reminder that there is hope. Even the most degraded patches of land can hold on to their legacies. There are countless other species out there that, like the silver tree, are teetering on the edge of extinction just waiting for a dedicated group of experts and volunteers to invest time and energy.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

The Largest Single Flower in the World

To find some of the largest flowers in the world, one must find themselves hiking through the the humid jungles of southeast Asia. From there you must be lucky enough to stumble across the flowers of a genus known scientifically as Rafflesia. It contains roughly 28 species spattered about various tropical islands. If you are very lucky, you might even find Rafflesia arnoldii. Producing flowers that are over 3 feet (1 m) in diameter and weighing as much as 24 pounds (11 kg), it produces the largest individual flower on the planet. 

Even more bizarre, these plants are entirely parasitic. They belong to a specialized group called holoparasites. These plants produce no stems, no leaves, nor any true roots. Their entire existence depends on a group of vines related to North America's grapes. Except for flowering, individual Rafflesia exist entirely as a network of mycelium-like cells inside the tissues of their vine hosts.


For a long time, the taxonomic status of this plant was highly debated but recent DNA evidence puts it in the order Malpighiales. From there, things get a little funny. One recent analysis suggested that Rafflesia belonged in the family Euphorbiaceae, however, it most likely warrants its own family - Rafflesiaceae.

So, why produce such large flowers? Well, existing solely within a vine makes it hard to establish a large population in any given area. This makes for a difficult situation in the pollinator department. Somehow plants must increase the odds that any given pollinator will visit multiple unrelated individuals of that particular species. By growing very large and and producing a lot of "stink" (this plant is also referred to as the corpse plant), Rafflesia make sure that pollinators will come from far and wide to investigate, thus increasing their chances of cross pollinating. How this plant goes about seed dispersal, however, remains a mystery.

Most interesting of all, it has been discovered that there is some amount of horizontal gene transfer going on between Rafflesia and its host. Basically, Rafflesia obtains strands of DNA from the vine and uses them in its own genetic code. It is believed this incurs some fitness benefit to Rafflesia but more research is needed to figure out why this may be happening. 

Sadly, many species within this family may be lost before we ever get a chance to get to know them. Forests throughout this region are disappearing rapidly to make room for expanding populations and agriculture. What makes matters worse for Rafflesia is that their lifestyle makes them very hard to study. It is especially difficult to obtain accurate population estimates. As more and more forests are cleared, we could be losing countless populations of these wonderful and intriguing plants. As with large mammals, it would seem that the world's largest flower is falling victim to the unending tide of human development. 

Photo Credit: Tamara van Molken


Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/2c2ALHl

http://bit.ly/2cPMP51

http://bit.ly/2cwP7ny

The Amazing Radiation of Hawaii's Lobeliads

Hawai'i is home to so many interesting species of plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. One group, however, stands out among the rest in that it represents the largest plant radiation not just in Hawai'i but on any island archipelago in the world!

I am of course talking about the Hawaiian lobelioids. We are familiar with species found on North America, which include the lovely cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), but the 6 genera that comprise the Hawaiian radiation are something quite different altogether.

Numbering roughly 125 species in total (and many extinct species as well), it was long thought that they were the result of at least 3 separate invasions. Thanks to recent DNA analysis, it is now believed that all 6 genera are the result of one single invasion by a lobelia-like ancestor. This may seem ridiculous but, when you consider the fact that this invasion happened back when Gardner Pinnacles and French Frigate Shoals were actual islands and none of the extant islands were even in existence, then you can kind of grasp the time scales involved that produced such a drastic and varied radiation.

Sadly, like countless Hawaiian endemics, the invasion of the human species has spelled disaster. Hawaiian endemics are declining at an alarming rate. Introduced pigs and rats eat seeds, devour seedlings, and even go as far as to chew right through the stems of adult plants. To make matters worse, many species evolved to a specific suite of pollinators. Take the genus Clermontia for example. The flowers of these species are evolved for pollination by the island's endemic honey creepers. Due to avian malaria and other human impacts, many honey creepers are endangered and some have already gone extinct. Without their pollinators, many of these lobelioids are doomed to slow extinction if they haven't disappeared already. For some, what few populations remain are now fenced off and have to be hand pollinated. As I have said all too often, the future of this great radiation of plants is uncertain.

Photo Credits: Oakapples (http://bit.ly/OjOqhU), Forest and Kim Starr (http://bit.ly/1miCAA5), Dave Janas

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/2aIviF5

http://bit.ly/2bh9Dpv

http://bit.ly/2b4i5dV

Brother of Hibiscus

Islands are known for their interesting flora and fauna. Until humans came on the scene, colonization events by different species on different islands were probably rare events, with long stretches of time in between. Because of this, islands are interesting experiments in evolution, often having endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Hawai'i was once home to many different kinds of endemic species. One such group are the Hibiscadelphus.

As you may have gathered by the name, Hibiscadelphus is a relative of hibiscus. The Latin name means "brother of Hibiscus." Unlike the widely splayed flowers of their relatives, Hibiscadelphus flowers never fully open. Instead, they form a tubular structure with a curved lower lip. The genus consists of 7 species. Four of these have gone completely extinct, two are only maintained in cultivation, and the remainder is barely holding on. There have been attempts to reestablish some species into other portions of their range but due to hybridization, these attempts were ceased. In my opinion this is a shame. In this case, a hybrid is better than losing both parental species and it would still be uniquely Hawaiian.

Why are Hibiscadelphus so rare? Well, humans have a sad history when it comes to colonizing islands. They bring with them a multitude of invasive species at a rate in which the local flora and fauna cannot adapt. They change the land through cultivation and development as well as by subduing natural fire regimes. Also, they wipe out keystone species, which causes a ripple effect throughout the environment. Hibiscadelphus have faced all of these threats and more. Pigs and rats eat their seeds, their habitats have been turned over for the ever-increasing human population, fires have been stopped, and some of their pollinators, the endemic honeycreepers, have also been driven to extinction thanks to avian pox and malaria. Sadly, this is a story that repeats itself time and time again all over the world. For now, the future of Hibiscadelphus is rather bleak.

Photo Credit: David Eickhoff

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/2ao84X1

http://bit.ly/2aEfpkn

The Ghosts of Florida

 

There are ghosts haunting the Florida Everglades. I'm not talking about the metaphysical kind either. The ghosts I am talking about come in the form of a plant. A strange, mystical, and beautiful plant at that. Growing amongst things like panthers, snakes, palms, ferns, and more mosquitoes than I care to imagine are these rare and endangered plants which have been made famous by court cases, books, and even a Hollywood movie.

If you haven't guessed it by now, I am talking about the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). In what is one of Nicolas Cage's best onscreen roles (a close second to Raising Arizona), these orchids were made famous the world over. Based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, the movie takes a lot of creative licenses with the story of these orchids.

Ghosts orchids are epiphytes. In Flordia, upwards of 80% of them can be found growing on the bark of pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). Finding them can be tricky unless you know what to look for. Ghost orchids belong to a group of orchids that have forgone leaf production. No, they are not parasites like Corallorhiza. Instead, they photosynthesize through their long, ambling roots. Pores along their length allow for gas exchange. For most of the year all you will ever see of a ghost is a tangle of roots growing among the moss and lichen on the bark of a tree. 

When a ghost decides to flower, it is easy to see where all the hype comes from. Large white flowers shoot out from the center of the roots, each one with its own twisted pair of tendrils on the lip, which are said to resemble the ghostly outline of a frog jumping through the air. Each flower is also equipped with a long nectar spur. This along with the white coloration and the fact that each flower is most fragrant at night points to the identity of the ghost orchids sole pollinator, the giant sphinx moth. It has a long proboscis that is exactly the length of that nectar spur. No other organism has what it takes to pollinate a ghost. 

The presence of the ghost orchid in southern Florida has everything to do with water. Predominantly a species of the Caribbean, ghost orchids cannot handle frost. In the Everglades, ghosts grow in and around topographical features known as sloughs. Sloughs are ditches that are filled with water for most of the year. Because water has a high specific heat, the sloughs keep the surrounding area cool in the summer and warm in the winter. When Florida experiences hard frosts, these sloughs never get below freezing. This means that these regions are essentially tropical. All these factors combine to make southern Florida the most northerly spot you will ever see a ghost (and many other plant species) growing in the continental United States. 

Sadly, ghost orchids are not doing so hot in the wild. The habitat they rely upon is disappearing at an alarming rate. If you have been to Florida in the last 100 years you can certainly understand. Over half of the Everglades have been drained and developed since 1900 with plenty more of it degraded beyond any hope of repair. Invasive species run amok for the same reasons that the native plants do so well, crowding out some of Florida's most unique flora and fauna. 

To add insult to injury, poaching of ghost orchids is serious business. Despite its difficulty in cultivation and the fact that most wild ghosts quickly die in captivity, there are those out there that will still pay insane prices to have a ghost in their collection. Nursery produced specimens are becoming more common, so with time this should alleviate some of that pressure. Still, there is no end to the senseless greed of some orchid fanatics. 

There is hope on the horizon. Researchers are starting to unlock some of the secret to ghost orchid reproduction. Plants are now being grown from seed in specialized labs. In time, this new generation of ghost orchids will be planted back into southern Florida in hopes of increasing population sizes. 

Photo Credits: Big Cypress National Preserve

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/24NiqT9

http://bit.ly/1XTqh38

http://bit.ly/21jegSg

http://bit.ly/1PZlKJu

The Endangered Running Buffalo Clover

 

Endangered species come in all different shapes and sizes. Though the average person on the street can readily cite charismatic animals species such as the giant panda or the white rhino, few folks ever realize that many of the world's plants are at risk of extinction. In fact, the latest reports show that one in five plant species are in danger of disappearing forever. They aren't all charismatic species like orchids either, some of the most endangered plants are often the most ignored. They simply don't find their way into conversations about conservation. 

One prime example of such an imperiled plant is the running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). This lovely little clover once ranged from Arkansas, through Illinois and Indiana, all the way to Ohio and West Virginia. It was a species of open disturbed areas in prairies and forests. It enjoyed rich soils and probably followed in the wake of the large herds of bison and regular fires that once shaped the countryside. Another interesting aspect of this clover's ecology is that it apparently does not fix nitrogen. It lacks the rhizobial associates that make legumes famous. 

The loss of the bison from most of its range coupled with rampant habitat destruction spelled disaster for the running buffalo clover. It was thought to be extinct for nearly a century until 1983 when a single population was discovered in West Virginia. Since then scattered populations have been found, however, these are few and far between. As such, it is now considered a federally endangered species. 

The continued survival of the running buffalo clover is completely tied to proper land management. Without a natural disturbance regime, this lovely little plant is quickly overtaken by more aggressive vegetation. Gone are the days of the roaming buffalo and natural fire regimes. 

Luckily this species was able to garnish enough attention to earn it some protection. However, for far too many plant species this is simply not the case. Until we change the kinds of conversations we are having about plants and habitat in general, we stand to lose more plant species than I care to imagine. This in turn will have rippling effects through the entire ecosystem. So, today I want you to think about the running buffalo clover as a stark reminder of just how important conservation can be. 

Photo Credit: Andrew Lane Gibson (http://bit.ly/25Sb6f1)

Further Reading:
http://1.usa.gov/1sB7oo9

Enigmatic Neviusia

Neviusia. The first time I heard it mentioned I was certain the conversation had switched from reality to the world of Harry Potter. I was wrong. The name belongs to a genus of plants that are totally real. What's more, the natural history of this small group is absolutely fascinating.

The genus Neviusia is comprised of two extant species. N. alabamensis is endemic to a small region of the southeastern United States around northwest Georgia and the Ozark Mountains. Its cousin, N. cliftonii, was discovered in 1992 and is endemic to a small area around "Lake" Shasta in California. Fewer than 20 populations have been found and of them, six were flooded to create "Lake" Shasta. It would seem very strange that both species in this genus are not only endemic to extremely localized regions but also completely disjunct from one another. This is only the beginning.

Whereas fruits have been described for N. cliftonii, none have been reported in N. alabamensis. Ever. Thanks to genetic analysis, populations of both plants are thought to be entirely clonal. High rates of pollen sterility are to blame. Why this is the case is hard to say. It is thought that the genus Neviusia is a relict of the early Cenozoic. Fossil evidence from British Columbia suggest that this genus was once more diverse and more wide spread, having gradually declined to its current limited distribution. The Pleistocene was likely the last straw for these plants, being corralled into small refugia of suitable habitat by the glaciers. Lack of seed production (perhaps due to genetic drift) meant that these two species were to never recolonize their former range. At least not without help...

Since their discovery, these two species have garnered some attention. Like Franklinia, Neviusia have become a sort of horticultural curiosity and have since been out-planted in a variety of locations. My first and only encounter with Neviusia occurred in a conservation garden. Despite their popularity among researchers and gardeners alike, it is unlikely that Neviusia will ever reclaim even a fraction of their former glory. Instead, they remain as endemic reminders of a bygone era. Despite their limited range I think it is important to remember just how long they have survived in North America. After millions of years of survival and persistence, their biggest threat is now us.

Photo Credit: Philip Bouchard (http://bit.ly/1WpElzX)

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

http://bit.ly/1ZFEa1G

http://bit.ly/1UT2WfF

http://bit.ly/24OshNM

http://bit.ly/1TFblOd

http://bit.ly/1rWecMq

Lovely Lomatium

I officially learned how to botanize in the American west. Before then my skills were limited to "hey, look at the pretty flower" and then Googling my way to an answer. As such, I have a real soft spot for western botany. Despite the fact that I have not had the chance to exercise those muscles in some time, I nonetheless revisit the few groups that I do remember via the massive photo collection I built up during my tenure in Wyoming. One group I am particularly fond of are members of the genus Lomatium.

I had never really paid attention to members of the carrot family. I always associated that group with the Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) I encountered growing in ditches. In other words, I found them boring. All of that changed when I moved to Wyoming. Spring was slow to start that year. I mean really slow. I thought I had it bad in western New York where spring snow storms and freezing temperatures often delayed plant growth well into May. That year in Wyoming, the last snow storm hit on June 29th. Because of this, most of the plants we were trying to locate were biding their time underground waiting for favorable weather to kick off the growing season.

By mid June I was starving for plant life. I needed to see some greenery. That is when I first laid eyes on a Lomatium. They began appearing as tight clusters of highly dissected, rubbery leaves. Once I knew what to look for, I began finding them throughout the foothill regions where we were working. Since I was just getting familiar with the local flora, I was hard pressed to key anything out. Instead I just waited for flowers. I didn't have to wait very long. 

Soon entire hillsides were covered in little yellow umbels. They were squat plants, never growing too high. The constant winds that whipped across the terrain made sure of that. It soon became apparent that Lomatiums don't waste any time. Water is limited in these habitats and they have to make quick work of it while it is available. Another interesting thing to note is the sex of the flowers. Generally when I see a dense umbel like that, I just assumed they were hermaphroditic. In at least some Lomatium, this is actually not the case. The sex of the flowers is determined by age. 

Smaller plants tend to produce male flowers, whereas larger plants will produce hermaphrodites. This makes a lot of sense as producing only pollen requires much fewer resources than producing ovaries and eventually seeds. Needless to say, larger plants also produce the most seed and are often the driving force in population persistence and growth. The seeds themselves are quite interesting. They are winged and often quite fleshy until they dry. Wind is the predominant seed dispersal mechanism and there is no shortage of wind in sagebrush country. 

The phylogeny of this genus is quite confusing. I certainly haven't gotten my head wrapped around it. Individuals are notoriously hard to identify both physically and genetically. There is a large degree of genetic variation between plants and "new species" are still being discovered. At the same time, there is also a lot of endemism and some species like Lomatium cookii and Lomatium dissectum are of conservation concern. Aside from habitat destruction, over-grazing, and limited ranges, over-collection for herbal uses poses considerable threat to many species. 

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/1VWvMfV

http://bit.ly/1VE24MF

http://bit.ly/1WUzohQ

http://bit.ly/1qXSVS8

http://bit.ly/245NDpH

The Fall of Corncockle

This switch from more traditional farming practices to industrialized monocultures has left a damaging legacy on ecosystems around the globe. This is especially true for unwanted plants. Species that once grew in profusion are now sprayed and tilled out of existence. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than for a lovely little plant known commonly as the corncockle (Agrostemma githago). 

This species was once a common weed in European wheat fields. Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, it was likely that most wheat sold contained a measurable level of corncockle seed. Its pink flowers would have juxtaposed heavily against the amber hue of grain. Indeed, its habit of associating with wheat has lead to its introduction around the globe. It can now be found growing throughout parts of North America, Australia, and New Zealand. 

However, in its home range of Europe, the corncockle isn't doing so well. The industrialization of farming dealt a huge blow to corncockle ecology. The broad-scale application of herbicides wreaked havoc on corncockle populations. Much more detrimental was the switch to winter wheat, which caused a decoupling between harvest time and seed set for the corncockle. Whereas it once synced quite nicely with regular wheat harvest, winter wheat is harvested before corncockle can set seed. As such, corncockle has become extremely rare throughout its native range and was even thought to be extinct in the UK. 

A discovery in 2014 changed all of that. National Trust assistant ranger Dougie Holden found a single plant flowering near a lighthouse. Extensive use of field guides and keys confirmed that this plant was indeed a corncockle, the first seen blooming in the UK in many decades. It is likely that the sole plant grew from seed churned up by vehicle traffic the season before. 

Photo Credit: sonnentau (bit.ly/1qo3XQK)

Further Reading:
Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. and Warburg, E.F. 1968. Excursion Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press

A New Species of Parasite Discovered in Japan

A new species of parasitic plant has been discovered on the Japanese island of Yakushima. A small population was found by Suetsugu Kenji during a survey of the lowland laurel forests that cover much of the island. Despite being an authority on parasitic plants of this region, Professor Suetsugu did not recognize these plants. As such, a specimen was collected for a closer look.

An in depth examination revealed that this was indeed a new species. It has been named Sciaphila yakushimensi in honor of the island on which it was discovered. It belongs to a family of plants called Triuridaceae. They are closely related to the family Alismataceae and many members of this family have foregone photosynthesis for a parasitic lifestyle.

S. yakushimensi is what we call a mycoheterotroph. It parasitizes mycorrhizal fungi, taking the nutrients it needs and giving nothing in return. The fungi themselves are getting their nutrient needs from the trees that grow in the forest. As such, S. yakushimensi could not exist without an intact forest to support its fungal host.

This is the troubling part. Only two populations of S. yakushimensi have been discovered. Its parasitic lifestyle makes it difficult to get an accurate estimation of its numbers. These plants live most of their lives underground, only appearing when it is time to flower. Because of this, researchers are already suggesting that this species be considered endangered.

Sadly, its native forest is under constant threat of logging. Much of this region remains unprotected. Since mycoheterotrophs like S. yakushimensi rely on an intact forest capable of supporting its host fungi, any disturbance that threatens the forest can spell disaster for these parasites. Far from being a detriment to the forests in which they live, parasitic plants like S. yakushimensi can serve as a very important reminder of how crucial it is to preserve entire ecosystems rather than single species.

Photo Credit: Yamashita Hiroaki

Further Reading:

https://www.tsumura.co.jp/english/kampo/plant/090/090_01.html

An Underground Orchid

Are you ready to have your mind blown away? What you are looking at here is not some strange kind of mushroom, though fungus is involved. What you are seeing is actually the inflorescence of a parasitic orchid from Australia that lives and blooms underground!

Meet Rhizanthella gardneri. This strange little orchid is endemic to Western Australia and it lives, blooms, and sets seed entirely underground. It is extremely rare, with only 6 known populations. Fewer than 50 mature plants are known to exist. This is another one of those tricky orchids that does not photosynthesize but, instead, parasitizes a fungus that is mycorrhizal with the broom honey myrtle (Melaleuca uncinata). To date, the orchid has only been found under that specific species of shrub. Because of its incredibly unique requirements, its limited range, and habitat destruction, R. gardneri is critically endangered.

The flowers open up a few centimeters under the soil. They are quite fragrant and it is believed that ants, termites, and beetles are the main pollinators. The resulting seeds take up to 6 months to mature and are quite fleshy. It is hypothesized that some sort of small marsupial eats them and consequently distributes them in its droppings. Either way, the chances of successful sexual reproduction for this species are quite low. Because of this, R. gardneri also reproduces asexually by budding off daughter plants.

Despite not photosynthesizing, this orchid is quite unique in that it still retains chloroplasts in its cells. They are a very stripped down form of chloroplast though, containing about half of the genes a normal chloroplast would. It is the smallest known chloroplast genome on the planet. This offers researchers a unique opportunity to look deeper into how these intracellular relationships function. The remaining chloroplast genes code for 4 essential plant proteins, meaning chloroplasts offer functions beyond just photosynthesis.

I am so amazed by this species. I'm having a hard time keeping my jaw off the ground. What an amazing world we live in. If you would like to see more pictures of R. gardneri, please make sure to check out the following website:
http://www.arkive.org/underground-orchid/rhizanthella-gardneri/

Photo Credit: Jean and Fred Hort

Further Reading:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208101337.htm

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-02/uowa-wai020711.php

http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=20109