Of Bluebells and Fungi

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Whether in your garden or in the woods, common bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are a delightful respite from the dreary months of winter. It should come as no surprise that these spring geophytes are a staple in temperate gardens the world over. And, as amazing as they are in the garden, bluebells are downright fascinating in the wild.

Bluebells can be found growing naturally from the northwestern corner of Spain north into the British Isles. They are largely a woodland species, though finding them in meadows isn't uncommon. They are especially common in sites that have not experienced much soil disturbance. In fact, large bluebell populations are used as indicators of ancient wood lots.

Being geophytes, bluebells cram growth and reproduction into a few short weeks in spring. We tend to think of plants like this as denizens of shade, however, most geophytes get going long before the canopy trees have leafed out. As such, these plants are more accurately sun bathers. On warm days, various bees can be seen visiting the pendulous flowers, with the champion pollinator being the humble bumble bees.

The above ground beauty of bluebells tends to distract us from learning much about their ecology. That hasn't stopped determined scientists though. Plenty of work has been done looking at how bluebells make their living and get on with their botanical neighbors. In fact, research is turning up some incredible data regarding bluebells and mycorrhizal fungi.

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Bluebell seeds tend not to travel very far, most often germinating near the base of the parent. Germination occurs in the fall when temperatures begin to drop and the rains pick up. Interestingly, bluebell seeds actually germinate within the leaf litter and begin putting down their initial root before the first frosts. Often this root is contractile, pulling the tiny seedling down into the soil where it is less likely to freeze. During their first year, phosphorus levels are high. Not only does the nutrient-rich endosperm supply the seedling with much of its initial needs, abundant phosphorus near the soil surface supplies more than enough for young plants. This changes as the plants age and change their position within the soil.

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Over the next 4 to 5 years, the bluebell's contractile roots pull it deeper down into the soil, taking it out of the reach of predators and frost. This also takes them farther away from the nutrient-rich surface layers. What's more, the roots of older bluebells are rather simple structures. They do not branch much, if at all, and they certainly do not have enough surface area for proper nutrient uptake. This is where mycorrhizae come in.

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Bluebells partner with a group of fungi called arbuscular mycorrhiza, which penetrate the root cells, thus greatly expanding the effective rooting zone of the plant. Plants pay these fungi in carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis and in return, the fungi provide the plants with access to far more nutrients than they would be able to get without them. One of the main nutrients plants gain from these symbiotic fungi is phosphorus.

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For bluebells, with age comes new habitat, and with new habitat comes an increased need for nutrients. This is why bluebells become more dependent on arbuscular mycorrhiza as they age. In fact, plants grown without these fungi do not come close to breaking even on the nutrients needed for growth and maintenance and thus live a shortened life of diminishing returns. This is an opposite pattern from what we tend to expect out of mycorrhizal-dependent plants. Normally its the seedlings that cannot live without mycorrhizal symbionts. It just goes to show you that even familiar species like the bluebell can offer us novel insights into the myriad ways in which plants eke out a living.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

One Mustard, Many Flavors

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What do kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and cabbage have in common? They are all different cultivars of the same species!

Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is native to coastal parts of southern and western Europe. In its native habitat, wild cabbage is very tolerant of salty, limey soils but not so tolerant of competition. Because of this, it tends to grow mainly on limestone sea cliffs where few other plants can dig their roots in.

Despite their popularity as delicious, healthy vegetables, as well as their long history of cultivation, there is scant record of this plant before Greek and Roman times. Some feel that this is one of the oldest plants in cultivation. Along with the countless number of edible cultivars, the wild form of Brassica oleracea can be found growing throughout the world, no doubt thanks to its popularity among humans.

I am always amazed by how little we know about crop wild relatives. Despite the popularity of its many agricultural cultivars, relatively little attention has been paid to B. oleracea in the wild. What we do know is that at least two subspecies have been identified - B. oleracea ssp. bourgeaui and B. oleracea L. ssp. oleracea. As far as anyone can tell, subspecies 'oleracea' is the most wide spread in its distribution whereas subspecies 'bourgeaui'  is only known from the Canary Islands. 

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B. oleracea's long history with humans confuses matters quite a bit. Because it has been cultivated for thousands of years, identifying which populations represent wild individuals and which represent ancient introductions is exceedingly difficult. Such investigations are made all the more difficult by a lack of funding for the kind of research that would be needed to elucidate some of these mysteries. We know so little about wild B. oleracea that the IUCN considers is a species to be "data deficient."

It seems to appreciate cool, moist areas and will sometimes escape from cultivation if conditions are right, thus leading to the confusion mentioned above. It is amazing to look at this plant and ponder all the ways in which humans have selectively bred it into the myriad shapes, sizes, and flavors we know and love (or hate) today! However, we must pay more attention to the wild progenitors of our favorite crops. They harbor much needed genetic diversity as well as clues to how these plants are going to fare as our climates continue to change.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

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

Trout Lily Appreciation

This video is a celebration of the white trout lily (Erythronium albidum) and its various spring ephemeral neighbors. We even talk about the threat that invasive species like garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata).

Producer, Editor, Camera: Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

Music by
Artist: Botanist
Track:
https://verdant-realm-botanist.bandcamp.com/

Prescribed Fire On An Illinois Prairie

Prairies are fire adapted ecosystems. For far too long, fires were sequestered. Today, more and more communities are coming around to the fact that fire can be used as a tool to bring life back to these endangered ecosystems. In this video, we get hands on experience with fire as a prairie restoration tool.

Producer, Editor, Camera: Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

Music by
Artist: Stranger In My Town
Track: Terra
https://strangerinmytown.bandcamp.com/

 

Early Spring Ephemerals

Join us as we go in search of some of the earliest spring ephemerals. In this episode we come face to face with the aptly named harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa) and the lovely Hepatica nobilis.

Producer, Editor, Camera: Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

Music by
Artist: Stranger In My Town
Track: Air
https://strangerinmytown.bandcamp.com/

Life On a Floodplain

Floodplains can be pretty rough places for plant life. Despite readily a available water supply, the unpredictable, disturbance-prone nature of these habitats means that static lifeforms such as plants need to be quite adaptable to survive and persist. Join In Defense of Plants for a brief look at this sort of ecosystem.

Producer, Editor, Camera: Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

Music by
Artist: Somali Yacht Club
Track: Up In The Sky
http://somaliyachtclub.bandcamp.com

The Desert Mistletoe: Evolution In Action

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There are a multitude of mistletoes on this planet (for example: 1, 2, 3) and all of them are parasites to one degree or another. I find parasitic plants absolutely fascinating as there are many variations on this lifestyle as there are hosts to parasitize. On a recent botanical adventure in the Sonoran Desert, I met yet another representative of this group - the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). Once I knew what I was looking at, I could not wait to do some research. As it turns out, this species has garnered quite a bit of attention over the years and it is teaching us some interesting tidbits on how parasites may evolve.

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The desert mistletoe is not hard to spot, especially during the driest parts of the year when most of its host trees have shed their leaves. It looks like a leafless tangled mass of pendulous stems sitting among the branches of larger shrubs and trees. It can be found growing throughout both the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and appears to prefer leguminous trees including palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), mesquite (Prosopis spp.), and Acacia.

The desert mistletoe is a type of hemiparasite, which means it is capable of performing photosynthesis but nonetheless relies on its host tree for water and other nutrients. Lacking leaves, the desert mistletoe meets all of its photosynthetic needs via its green stems. Its leafless habit also makes its flowers and fruit all the more conspicuous. Despite their small size, its flowers are really worth closer inspection. When in bloom, a desert mistletoe comes alive with the hum of various insects looking for energy-rich nectar and pollen. Even before you spot them, you can easily tell if there is a blooming mistletoe nearby as the flowers give off a wonderfully sweet aroma. It appears that the desert mistletoe takes no chances when it comes to reproduction in such an arid climate.

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As I mentioned above, the desert mistletoe has been the subject of inquiry over the last few decades. Researchers interested in how parasitic plants evolve have illuminated some intriguing aspects of the biology of this species, especially as its relates to host preference. It would appear that our interest in this species seems to be situated at an important time in its evolutionary history. Not all populations of desert mistletoe "behave" in the same way. In fact, each seems to be heading towards more intense specialization based on its preferred host.

By performing seed transplant experiments, researchers have demonstrated that various populations of desert mistletoe seem to be specializing on specific tree species. For instance, when seeds collected from mistletoe growing on Acacia were placed on paleo verde or mesquite, they experienced significantly less germination than if they were placed on another Acacia. Though the exact mechanisms aren't clear at this point in time, evidence suggests that the success of desert mistletoe may be influenced by various hormone levels within the host tree, with isolated populations becoming more specialized on the chemistry of their specific host in that region.

Speaking of isolation, there is also evidence to show that populations of desert mistletoe growing on different host trees are reproductively isolated as well. Populations growing on mesquite trees flower significantly later than populations growing on Acacia or palo verde. Essentially this means that their genes never have the chance to mix, thus increasing the differences between these populations. Again, it is not entirely certain how the host tree may be influencing mistletoe flowering time, however, hormones and water availability are thought to play a role.

Another intriguing idea, and one that has yet to be tested, are the roles that seed dispersers may play out in this evolutionary drama. After pollination, the desert mistletoe produces copious amounts of bright red berries that birds find irresistible. Two birds in particular, the northern mockingbird and the Phainopepla, aggressively defend fruiting mistletoe shrubs within their territories. It could be possible that these birds may be influencing which trees the seeds of the desert mistletoe end up on. Again, this is just a hypothesis but one that certainly deserves more attention.

 A Phainopepla on the lookout for mistletoe berries.

A Phainopepla on the lookout for mistletoe berries.

Love them or hate them, there is something worth admiring about mistletoes. At the very least, they are important components of their native ecology. What's more, species like the desert mistletoe have a lot to teach us about the way in which species interact and what that means for biodiversity.

Photo Credit: [1]

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

North America's Pachysandra

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been a fan of garden variety Pachysandra. Long before I had any interest in plants or gardening, there was something about this groundcover that simply did not appeal to me. Fast forward more than a decade and my views on the use of Asian Pachysandra in the garden have not changed much. You can imagine my surprise then when I learned that North America has its own representative of this genus - the Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens).

My introduction to P. procumbens happened during a tour of the Highlands Botanical Garden in Highlands, North Carolina. I recognized its shape and my initial reaction was alarm that a garden specializing in native plants would showcase a non-native species. My worry was quickly put to rest as the sign informed me that this lovely groundcover was in fact indigenous to this region. Indeed, P. procumbens can be found growing in shady forest soils from North Carolina down to Florida and Texas.

This species is yet another representative of a curious disjunction in major plant lineages between North America and eastern Asia. Whereas North America has this single species of Pachysandra, eastern Asia boasts two, P. axillaris and P. terminalis. Such a large gap in the distribution of this genus (as well as many others) seems a bit strange until one considered the biogeographic history of the two continents.

Many thousands of years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today. This exposed land bridges between continents which today are hundreds of feet under water. During favorable climatic periods, Asia and North America likely shared a considerable amount of their respective floras, a fact we still find evidence of today. The Pachysandra are but one example of a once connected distribution that has been fragmented by subsequent sea level rise. Fossil records of Pachysandra have been found in regions of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota and provide further confirmation of this.

As a species, P. procumbens is considered a subshrub. It is slow growing but given time, populations can grow to impressive sizes. In spring, numerous fragrant, white flower spikes emerge that are slowly eclipsed by the flush of spring leaf growth. The flowers themselves are intriguing structures worthy of close inspection. Their robust form is what gives this genus its name. "Pachys" is Greek for thick and "andros" is Greek for male, which refers to the thickened filaments that support the anthers.

It is hard to say for sure why this species is not as popular in horticulture as its Asian cousins. It tolerates a wide variety of soil types and does well in shade. What's more, it is mostly ignored by all but the hungriest of deer. And, at the end of the day, it took this species to change my mind about Pachysandra. After all, each and every species has a story to tell.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Daffodil Insights

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Daffodils seem to be everywhere. Their horticultural popularity means that, for many of us, these plants are among the first flowers we see each spring. Daffodils are so commonplace that it's as if they evolved to live in our gardens and nowhere else. Indeed, daffodils have had a long, long history with human civilization, so much so that it is hard to say when our species first started to cohabitate. Our familiarity with these plants belies an intriguing natural history. What follows is a brief overview of the world of daffodils. 

If you are like me, then you may have gone through most of your life not noticing much difference between garden variety daffodils. Though many of us will be familiar with only a handful of daffodil species and cultivars, these introductions barely scratch the surface. One may be surprised to learn that as of 2008, more than 28,000 daffodil varieties have been named and that number continues to grow each and every year. Even outside of the garden, there is some serious debate over the number of daffodil species, much of this having to do with what constitutes a species in this group.

  Narcissus poeticus

Narcissus poeticus

As I write this, all daffodils fall under the genus Narcissus. Estimates as to the number of species within Narcissus range from as few as 50 to as many as 80. The genus itself sits within the family Amaryllidaceae and is believed to have originated somewhere between the late Oligocene and early Miocene, some 18 to 30 million years ago. Despite its current global distribution, Narcissus are largely Mediterranean plants, with peak diversity occurring on the Iberian Peninsula. However, thanks to the aforementioned long and complicated history in cultivation, it has become quite difficult to understand the full range of diversity in form and habitat of many species. To understand this, we first need to understand a bit about their reproductive habits.

Much of the evolution of Narcissus seems to center around floral morphology and geographic isolation. More specifically, the length of the floral tube or "corona" and the position of the sexual organs within, dictates just who can effectively pollinate these plants. The corona itself is not made up of petals or sepals but instead, its tube-like appearance is due to a fusion of the stamens into the famous trumpet-like tube we know and love.

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Variation in corona shape and size has led to the evolution of three major pollination strategies within this genus. The first form is the daffodil form, whose stigma is situated at the mouth of the corolla, well beyond the 6 anthers. This form is largely pollinated by larger bees. The second form is the paperwhite form, whose stigma is situated more closely to or completely below the anthers at the mouth of the corona. This form is largely pollinated by various Lepidoptera as well as long tongued bees and flies. The third form is the triandrus form, which exhibits three distinct variations on stigma and anther length, all of which are situated deep within the long, narrow corona. The pendant presentation of the flowers in this group is thought to restrict various butterflies and moths from entering the flower in favor of bees.

  Narcissus tazetta

Narcissus tazetta

The variations on these themes has led to much reproductive isolation among various Narcissus populations. Plants that enable one type of pollinator usually do so at the exclusion of others. Reproductive isolation plus geographic isolation brought on by differences in soil types, habitat types, and altitudinal preferences is thought to have led to a rapid radiation of these plants across the Mediterranean. All of this has gotten extremely complicated ever since humans first took a fancy to these bulbs.

  Narcissus cyclamineus

Narcissus cyclamineus

Reproductive isolation is not perfect in these plants and natural hybrid zones do exist where the ranges of two species overlap. However, hybridization is made much easier with the helping hand of humans. Whether via landscape disturbance or direct intervention, human activity has caused an uptick in Narcissus hybridization. For centuries, we have been mixing these plants and moving them around with little to no record as to where they originated. What's more, populations frequently thought of as native are actually nothing more than naturalized individuals from ancient, long-forgotten introductions. For instance, Narcissus populations in places like China, Japan, and even Great Britain originated in this manner.

All of this mixing, matching, and hybridizing lends to some serious difficulty in delineating species boundaries. It would totally be within the bounds of reason to ask if some of the what we think of as species represent true species or simply geographic varieties on the path to further speciation. This, however, is largely speculative and will require much deeper dives into Narcissus phylogenetics.

  Narcissus triandrus

Narcissus triandrus

Despite all of the confusion surrounding accurate Narcissus taxonomy, there are in fact plenty of true species worth getting to know. These range in form and habit far more than one would expect from horticulture. There are large Narcissus, small Narcissus, there are Narcissus with yellow flowers and Narcissus with white flowers, some with upright flowers and some with pendant flowers. There are even a handful of fall blooming Narcissus. The variety of this genus is staggering if you are not prepared for it.

  Narcissus viridiflorus  - a green, fall-blooming daffodil

Narcissus viridiflorus - a green, fall-blooming daffodil

After pollination, the various Narcissus employ a seed dispersal strategy that doesn't get talked about enough in reference to this group. Attached to each hard, black seed are fatty structures known as eliasomes. Eliasomes attract ants. Like many spring flowering plant species around the globe, Narcissus utilize ants as seed dispersers. Ants pick up the seeds and bring them back to their nests. They go about removing the eliasomes and then discard the seed. The seed, safely tucked away in a nutrient-rich ant midden, has a much higher chance of germination and survival than if things were left up to simple chance. It remains to be seen whether or not Narcissus obtain similar seed dispersal benefits from ants outside of their native range. Certainly Narcissus populations persist and naturalize readily, however, I am not aware if ants have any part in the matter.

 The endangered  Narcissus alcaracensis .

The endangered Narcissus alcaracensis.

Despite their popularity in the garden, many Narcissus are having a hard go of it in the wild. Habitat destruction, climate change, and rampant collecting of wild bulbs are having serious impacts on Narcissus numbers. The IUCN considered at least 5 species to be endangered and a handful of some of the smaller species already thought to be extinct in the wild. In response to some of these issues, protected areas have been established that encompass at least some of the healthy populations that remain for some of these species.

If you are anything like me, you have ignored Narcissus for far too long. Sure, they aren't native to the continent on which I live, and sure, they are one of the most commonly used plants in a garden setting, but every species has a story to tell. I hope that, armed with this new knowledge, you at least take a second look at the Narcissus popping up around your neighborhood. More importantly, I hope this introduction makes you appreciate their wild origins and the fact that we still have much to learn about these plants. I have barely scratched the surface of this genus and there is more more information out there worth perusing. Finally, I hope we can do better for the wild progenitors of our favorite garden plants. They need all the help they can get and unless we start speaking up and working to preserve wild spaces, all that will remain are what we have in our gardens and that is not a future I want to be a part of.

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

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

 

Meet the Ocotillo

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I love the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) for many reasons. It is an impossible plant to miss with its spindly, spine-covered stems. It is a lovely plant that is right at home in the arid parts of southwestern North America. Beyond its unique appearance, the ocotillo is a fascinating and important component of the ecology of this region.

My first impression of ocotillo was interesting. I could not figure out where this plant belonged on the tree of life. As a temperate northeasterner, one can forgive my taxonomic ignorance of this group. The family from which it hails, Fouquieriaceae, is restricted to southwestern North America. It contains one genus (Fouquieria) and about 11 species, all of which are rather spiky in appearance.

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Of course, those spines serve as protection. Resources like water are in short supply in desert ecosystems so these plants ensure that it is a real struggle for any animal looking to take a bite. Those spines are tough as well. One manged to pierce the underside of my boot during a hike and I was lucky that it just barely grazed the underside of my foot. Needless to say, the ocotillo is a plant worthy of attention and respect.

One of the most striking aspects of ocotillo life is how quickly these plants respond to water. As spring brings rain to this region of North America, ocotillo respond with wonderful sprays of bright red flowers situated atop their spindly stems. These blooms are usually timed so as to take advantage of migrating hummingbirds and emerging bees. The collective display of a landscape full of blooming ocotillo is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and a sight one soon doesn't forget. It is as if the whole landscape has suddenly caught on fire. Indeed, the word "ocotillo" is Spanish for "little torch."

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Flowering isn't the only way this species responds to the sudden availability of water. A soaking rain will also bring about an eruption of leaves, turning its barren, white stems bright green. The leaves themselves are small and rather fragile. They do not have the tough, succulent texture of what one would expect out of a desert specialist. That is because they don't have to ride out the hard times. Instead, ocotillo are what we call a drought deciduous species, producing leaves when times are good and water is in high supply, and dropping them as soon as the soil dries out.

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This cycle of growing and dropping leaves can and does happen multiple times per year. It is not uncommon to see ocotillo leaf out up to 4 or 5 times between spring and fall. During the rest of the year, ocotillo relies on chlorophyll in its stems for its photosynthetic needs. Interestingly enough, this poses a bit of a challenge when it comes to getting enough CO2. Whereas leaves are covered in tiny pours called stomata which help to regulate gas exchange, the stems of an ocotillo are a lot less porous, making it a challenge to get gases in and out. This is where the efficient metabolism of this plant comes in handy.

All plants undergo respiration like you and me. The carbohydrates made during photosynthesis are broken down to fuel the plant and in doing so, CO2 is produced. Amazingly, the ocotillo (as well as many other plants that undergo stem photosynthesis) are able to recycle the CO2 generated by cellular respiration back into photosynthesis within the stem. In this way, the ocotillo is fully capable of photosynthesis even without leaves.

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Through the good times and the bad, the ocotillo and its relatives are important components of desert ecology. They are as hardy as they are beautiful and getting to see them in person has been a remarkable experience. They ad a flare of surreality to the landscape that must be seen in person to believe.

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

Apocynaceae Ant House

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The dogbane family, Apocynaceae, comes in many shapes, sizes, and lifestyles. From the open-field milkweeds we are most familiar with here in North America to the cactus-like Stapeliads of South Africa, it would seem that there is no end to the adaptive abilities of this family. Being an avid gardener both indoors and out, the diversity of Apocynaceae means that I can be surrounded by these plants year round. My endless quest to grow new and interesting houseplants was how I first came to know a genus within the family that I find quite fascinating. Today I would like to briefly introduce you to the Dischidia vines.

 Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

The genus Dischidia is native to tropical regions of China. Like its sister genus Hoya, these plants grow as epiphytic vines throughout the canopy of warm, humid forests. Though they are known quite well among those who enjoy collecting horticultural curiosities, Dischidia as a whole is relatively understudied. These odd vines do not attach themselves to trees via spines, adhesive pads, or tendrils. Instead, they utilize their imbricated leaves to grasp the bark of the trunks and branches they live upon.

 The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine ( Dischidia rafflesiana )

The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine (Dischidia rafflesiana)

One thing we do know about this genus is that most species specialize in growing out of arboreal ant nests. Ant gardens, as they are referred to, offer a nutrient rich substrate for a variety of epiphytic plants around the world. What's more, the ants will visciously defend their nests and thus any plants growing within.

 The flowers of   Dischidia ovata

The flowers of Dischidia ovata

Some species of Dischidia take this relationship with ants to another level. A handful of species including D. rafflesiana, D. complex, D. major, and D. vidalii produce what are called "bullate leaves." These leaves start out like any other leaf but after a while the edges stop growing. This causes the middle of the leaf to swell up like a blister. The edges then curl over and form a hollow chamber with a small entrance hole.

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These leaves are ant domatia and ant colonies quickly set up shop within the chambers. This provides ample defense for the plant but the relationship goes a little deeper. The plants produce a series of roots that crisscross the inside of the leaf chamber. As ant detritus builds up inside, the roots begin to extract nutrients. This is highly beneficial for an epiphytic plant as nutrients are often in short supply up in the canopy. In effect, the ants are paying rent in return for a place to live.

Growing these plants can take some time but the payoff is worth. They are fascinating to observe and certainly offer quite a conversation piece as guests marvel at their strange form.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]

The Mighty Saguaro Cactus

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Where does one begin with a plant like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)? It is recognized the world over for its iconic appearance yet its native range is disproportionately small compared to its popularity. It is easily one of the most spectacular plants I have ever encountered and I will never forget the sound the wind makes as it blows over its spiny pleated trunk. It would be impossible to sum up our collective knowledge of this species in one article, however, I feel that some form of an introduction is necessary. Today I want to honor this icon of the Sonoran Desert.

The saguaro is the only member of the genus Carnegiea, which is part of a subtribe of cacti characterized by their columnar appearance. Despite its unique taxonomic affinity, the evolutionary origins of this cactus remains a bit of a mystery. Though it is undoubtedly related to other columnar cacti of the Americas, a proper family tree seems to be just out of our reach. Due to lots of convergent and parallel evolution as well as conflicts between genealogies and species histories, we still aren't sure of its evolutionary origins. What we do know about this species on a genetic level is nonetheless quite interesting. For instance the saguaro has one of the smallest chloroplast genomes of any non-parasitic plant and we aren’t exactly sure why this is the case.

Saguaro are long lived cacti. Estimating age of a cactus can be rather tricky considering that they don’t produce annual growth rings. This is where long term monitoring projects have come in handy. By observing hundreds of saguaro throughout the Sonoran Desert, experts believe that saguaro can regularly reach ages of 150 to 170 years and some individuals may be able to live for more than 200 years. Amazingly, it is thought that saguaro will not begin to grow their characteristic arms until they reach somewhere around 50 to 100 years of age. That being said, some saguaro never bother growing arms. It all depends on where the conditions they experience throughout their lifetime.

Growth for a saguaro depends on where they are rooted. Under favorable conditions, a saguaro can grow to heights of 50 feet or more, with the world record holder clocking in at a whopping 78 feet in height. Such growth becomes all the more impressive when you realize just how agonizingly slow the process can be. Studies have shown that juvenile saguaro only put on about 1.5 inches of growth in their first eight years of life.

Despite preconceived notions about the hardy nature of most cacti, saguaro have proven to be rather specific in their needs. They are limited in their growth and distribution by the availability of water and warm temperatures. Saguaro, especially young individuals, cannot tolerate periods of prolonged frost. Additionally, germination and seedling survival occur most frequently only during the wettest years. In fact, one study showed that successful years for reproduction in these beloved cacti were tied to volcanic eruptions that cooled the climate just enough to allow the young saguaro to become established.

Outside of volcanic eruptions, saguaro appear to have friends in the surrounding vegetation. Studies have shown that saguaro seedlings seem to do best when growing under the shade of trees like the palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), ironwood (Olneya tesota), and mesquite (Prosopis velutina). The microclimates produced by these trees are much more favorable for saguaro growth than are open desert conditions. In essence, these trees serve as nurseries for young saguaro until they are large enough to handle more exposed conditions. Their nursery habits are not mutually beneficial however as research suggests that saguaro eventually compete with the trees that once protected them for precious resources like nutrients and water.

 Saguaros outgrowing their palo verde nurse tree. 

Saguaros outgrowing their palo verde nurse tree. 

At roughly 35 years of age, a saguaro will begin to flower. Flowers are small compared to the size of the cactus but they are abundant. Most flowers are produced at the apex of the cactus and it is thought that the growth of saguaro arms is largely a way of increasing the reproductive potential of large individuals. The flowers are cream colored and night scented. They open in the evening but will stay open and continue to produce nectar well into the morning hours.

Though a wide variety of animals will visit these flowers, the main pollinators are bees during the day and lesser long-nosed bats at night. Interestingly, it has been found that certain amino acids within the nectar of the saguaro can actually help female bats sustain lactation while raising their young, making them a valuable food source for these flying mammals. Catering to such a broad spectrum of potential pollinators is thought to have evolved as a means of increasing seed set. Each saguaro ovary contains many ovules and the more pollen that makes it onto the stigma, the more seeds will be produced.

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 A lesser long-nosed bat pollinates a saguaro bloom.

A lesser long-nosed bat pollinates a saguaro bloom.

Due to their size and abundance, it is easy to understand why the saguaro is such an ecologically important species in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. In essence, they function similar to trees in that they serve as vital sources of shelter and food for myriad desert animals. Woodpeckers, especially the gila and the gilded flicker, regularly hollow out and build nests in saguaro trunks. These hollows are subsequently used by many different bird, mammal, and reptile species. The flowers and fruits are important sources of food for wildlife.

 Gila woodpecker with its nesting hole.

Gila woodpecker with its nesting hole.

 Gila woodpecker holes become homes for other birds like owls. 

Gila woodpecker holes become homes for other birds like owls. 

 On rare occasions, woodpecker holes can even become home to other cacti!

On rare occasions, woodpecker holes can even become home to other cacti!

I sincerely hope that this brief introduction does at least some justice to the wonderful organism that is the saguaro cactus. The Sonoran Desert would be a shell of an ecosystem without its presence. What’s more, it has played a significant role in the culture of this region for millennia. Though it appears quite numerous on the landscape, the long-term status of the saguaro is cause for concern. Numerous declines have been reported throughout its range. With its slow growth rates and infrequent recruitment events, the saguaro can be quite sensitive to rapid changes in its environment. Luckily it has received special protection laws throughout its US range.

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


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

The Wild World of the Creosote Bush

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Apart from the cacti, the real rockstar of my Sonoran experience was the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). Despite having been quite familiar with creosote as an ingredient, I admit to complete ignorance of the plant from which it originates. Having no familiarity with the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, I was walking into completely new territory in regard to the flora. It didn’t take long to notice creosote though. Once we hit the outskirts of town, it seemed to be everywhere.

If you are in the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts of western North America, you are never far from a creosote bush. They are medium sized, slow growing shrubs with sprays of compact green leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and fuzzy seeds. Apparently what is thought of as one single species is actually made up of three different genetic populations. The differences between these has everything to do with chromosome counts. Populations in the Mojave Desert have 78 chromosomes, Sonoran populations have 52 chromosomes, and Chihuahuan have 26. This may have to do with the way in which these populations have adapted to the relative amounts of rainfall each of these deserts receive throughout the year, however, it is hard to say for sure.

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Regardless, creosote is supremely adapted to these xeric ecosystems. For starters, their branching architecture coupled with their tiny leaves are arranged so as to make the most out of favorable conditions. If you stare at these shrubs long enough, you may notice that their branches largely orient towards the southeast. Also, their leaves tend to be highly clustered along the branches. It is thought that this branching architecture allows the creosote to minimize water loss while maximizing photosynthesis.

Deserts aren’t hot 24 hours per day. Night and mornings are actually quite cool. By taking advantage of the morning sun as it rises in the east, creosote are able to open their stomata and commence photosynthesis during those few hours when evapotranspiration would be at its lowest. In doing so, they are able to minimize water loss to a large degree. Although their southeast orientation causes them to miss out on afternoon and evening sun to a large degree, the benefits of saving precious water far outweigh the loss to photosynthesis. The clustering of the leaves along the branches may also reduce overheating by providing their own shade. Coupled with their small size, this further reduces heat stress and water loss during the hottest parts of the day.

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Creosote also secrets lots of waxy, resinous compounds. These coat the leaves and to some extent the stems, making them appear lacquered. It is thought that this also helps save water by reducing water loss through the leaf cuticle. However, the sheer diversity of compounds extracted from these shrubs suggests other functions as well. It is likely that at least some of these compounds are used in defense. One study showed that when desert woodrats eat creosote leaves, the compounds within caused the rats to lose more water through their urine and feces. They also caused a reduction in the amount of energy the rats were able to absorb from food. In other words, any mammal that regularly feeds on creosote runs the risk of both dehydration and starvation. This isn’t the only interesting interaction that creosote as with rodents either. Before we get to that, however, we first need to discuss roots.

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Creosote shrubs have deep root systems that are capable of accessing soil water that more shallowly rooted plants cannot. This brings them into competition with neighboring plants in intriguing ways. When rainfall is limited, shallowly rooted species like Opuntia gain access to water before it has a chance to reach deeper creosote roots. Surprisingly this happens more often than you would think. The branching architecture of creosote is such that it tends to accumulate debris as winds blow dust around the desert landscape. As a result, the soils directly beneath creosote often contain elevated nutrients. This coupled with the added shade of the creosote canopy means that seedlings that find themselves under creosote bushes tend to do better than seedlings that germinated elsewhere. As such, creosote are considered nurse plants that actually facilitate the growth and survival of surrounding vegetation. So, if recruitment and resulting competition from vegetation can become such an issue for long term creosote survival, why then do we still so much creosote on the landscape?

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The answer may lie in rodents and other burrowing animals in these desert ecosystems. Take a look at the base of a large creosote and you will often find the ground littered with burrows. Indeed, many a mammal finds the rooting zone of the creosote shrub to be a good place to dig a den. When these animals burrow under shallowly rooted desert plants, many of them nibble on and disturb the rooting zones. Over the long-term, this can be extremely detrimental for the survival of shallow rooted species. This is not the case for creosote. Its roots run so deep that most burrowing animals cannot reach them. As such, they avoid most of the damage that other plants experience. This lends to a slight survival advantage for creosote at the expense of neighboring vegetation. In this way, rodents and other burrowing animals may actually help reduce competition for the creosote.

Barring major disturbances, creosote can live a long, long time. In fact, one particular patch of creosote growing in the Mojave Desert is thought to be one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. As creosote shrubs grow, they eventually get to a point in which their main stems break and split. From there, they begin producing new stems that radiate out in a circle from the original plant. These clones can go on growing for centuries. By calculating the average growth rate of these shrubs, experts have estimated that the Mojave specimen, affectionately referred to as the “King Clone,” is somewhere around 11,700 years old!

 The ring of creosote that is King Clone.

The ring of creosote that is King Clone.

For creosote, its slow and steady wins the race. They are a backbone of North American desert ecosystems. Their structure offers shelter, their seeds offer food, and their flowers support myriad pollinators. Creosote is one shrub worthy of our respect and admiration.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

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

Palo Verde

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One of the first plants I noticed upon arriving in the Sonoran Desert were these small spiny trees without any leaves. The reason they caught my eye was that every inch of them was bright green. It was impossible to miss against the rusty brown tones of the surrounding landscape. It didn’t take long to track down the identity of this tree. What I was looking at was none other than the palo verde (Parkinsonia florida).

Palo verde belong to a small genus of leguminous trees. Parkinsonia consists of roughly 12 species scattered about arid regions of Africa and the Americas. The common name of “palo verde” is Spanish for “green stick.” And green they are! Like I said, every inch of this tree gives off a pleasing green hue. Of course, this is a survival strategy to make the most of life in arid climates.

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Despite typically being found growing along creek beds, infrequent rainfall limits their access to regular water supplies. As such, these trees have adapted to preserve as much water as possible. One way they do this is via their deciduous habit. Unlike temperate deciduous trees which drop their leaves in response to the changing of the seasons, palo verde drop their leaves in response to drought. And, as one can expect from a denizen of the desert, drought is the norm. Leaves are also a conduit for moisture to move through the body of a plant. Tiny pours on the surface of the leaf called stomata allow water to evaporate out into the environment, which can be quite costly when water is in short supply.

 The tiny pinnate leaves and pointy stems of the palo verde. 

The tiny pinnate leaves and pointy stems of the palo verde. 

Not having leaves for most of the year would be quite a detriment for most plant species. Leaves, after all, are where most of the photosynthesis takes place. That is, unless, you are talking about a palo verde tree. All of that green coloration in the trunk, stems, and branches is due to chlorophyll. In essence, the entire body of a palo verde is capable of performing photosynthesis. In fact, estimates show that even when the tiny pinnate leaves are produced, a majority of the photosynthetic needs of the tree are met by the green woody tissues.

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Flowering occurs whenever there is enough water to support their development, which usually means spring. They are small and bright yellow and a tree can quickly be converted into a lovely yellow puff ball seemingly overnight. Bees relish the flowers and the eventual seeds they produce are a boon for wildlife in need of an energy-rich meal.

However, it isn’t just wildlife that benefits from the presence of these trees. Other plants benefit from their presence as well. As you can probably imagine, germination and seedling survival can be a real challenge in any desert. Heat, sun, and drought exact a punishing toll. As such, any advantage, however slight, can be a boon for recruitment. Research has found that palo verde trees act as important nurse trees for plants like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Seeds that germinate under the canopy of a palo verde receive just enough shade and moisture from the overstory to get them through their first few years of growth.

In total, palo verde are ecologically important trees wherever they are native. What’s more, their ability to tolerate drought coupled with their wonderful green coloration has made them into a popular tree for native landscaping. It is certainly a tree I won’t forget any time soon.

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Other Pawpaws

  Asimina tetramera

Asimina tetramera

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) has been called "America's forgotten fruit." Once quite popular among Native Americans and settlers alike, it fell out of the public eye until quite recently. If one considers the pawpaw "forgotten" then its relatives have been straight up ignored. Indeed, the pawpaw shares the North American continent with 10 other Asimina species. 

  Asimina angustifolia

Asimina angustifolia

The genus Asimina belongs to a family of plants called the custard apple family - Annonaceae. It is a large family that mostly resides in the tropics. In fact, the genus Asimina is the only group to occur outside of the tropics. Though A. triloba finds itself growing as far north as Canada, the other species within this genus are confined to southeastern North America in coastal plain communities. 

  Asimina parviflora

Asimina parviflora

As I mentioned above, there are 10 other species in the genus and at least one naturally occurring hybrid. For the most part, they all prefer to grow where regular fires keep competing vegetation at bay. They are rather small in stature, usually growing as shrubs or small, spindly trees. They can be rather inconspicuous until it comes time to flower.

  Asimina obovata

Asimina obovata

The flowers of the various Asimina species are relatively large and range in color from bright white to deep red, though the most common flower color seems to be creamy white. The flowers themselves give off strange odors that have been affectionately likened to fermenting fruit and rotting meat. Of course, these odors attract pollinators. Asimina aren't much of a hit with bees or butterflies. Instead, they are mainly visited by blowflies and beetles. 

  Asimina pygmaea

Asimina pygmaea

As is typical of the family, all of the Asimina produce relatively large fruits chock full of hard seeds. Seed dispersal for the smaller species is generally accomplished through the help of mammals like foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and even reptiles such as the gopher tortoise. Because the coastal plain of North America is a fire-prone ecosystem, most of the Asimina are well adapted to cope with its presence. In fact, most require it to keep their habitat open and free of too much competition. At least one species, A. tetramera, is considered endangered in large part due to fire sequestration.

  Asimina reticulata

Asimina reticulata

All of the 11 or so Asimina species are host plants for the zebra swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) and the pawpaw sphinx moth (Dolba hyloeus). The specialization of these two insects and few others has to do with the fact that all Asimina produce compounds called acetogenins, which act as insecticides. As such, only a small handful of insects have adapted to be able to tolerate these toxic compounds. 

  Asimina tetramera

Asimina tetramera

Sadly, like all other denizens of America's coastal plain forest, habitat destruction is taking its toll on Asimina numbers. As mentioned above, at least one species (A. tetramera) is considered endangered. We desperately need to protect these forest habitats. Please support a local land conservation organization like the Partnership For Southern Forestland Conservation today!

See a list of the Asimina of North America here: [1] 

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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

An Endangered Iris With An Intriguing Pollination Syndrome

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The Golan iris (Iris hermona) is a member of the Oncocyclus section, an elite group of 32 Iris species native to the Fertile Crescent region of southwestern Asia. They are some of the showiest irises on the planet. Sadly, like many others in this section, the Golan iris is in real danger of going extinct.

The Golan iris has a rather limited distribution. Despite being named in honor of Mt. Hermon, it is restricted to the Golan Heights region of northern Israel and southwestern Syria. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the Golan iris has suffered from a bit of taxonomic uncertainty ever since it was discovered. It is similar in appearance to both I. westii and I. bismarckiana with which it is frequently confused. In fact, some authors still consider I. hermona to be a variety of I. bismarckiana. This has led to some serious issues when trying to assess population numbers. Despite the confusion, there are some important anatomical differences between these plants, including the morphology of their rhizomes and the development of their leaves. Regardless, if these plants are in fact different species, it means their respective numbers in the wild decrease dramatically. 

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Like other members of the Oncocyclus group, the Golan iris exhibits an intriguing pollination syndrome with a group of bees in the genus Eucera. Their large, showy flowers may look like a boon for pollinators, however, close observation tells a different story. The Golan iris and its relatives receive surprisingly little attention from most of the potential pollinators in this region.

One reason for their lack of popularity has to do with the rewards (or lack thereof) they offer potential visitors. These irises produce no nectar and very little pollen. Because of this and their showy appearance, most pollinators quickly learn that these plants are not worth the effort. Instead, the only insects that ever pay these large blossoms any attention are male Eucerine bees. These bees aren't looking for food or fragrance, however. Instead, they are looking for a place to rest. 

 A Eucerine bee visiting a nectar source. 

A Eucerine bee visiting a nectar source. 

The Oncocyclus irises cannot self pollinate, which makes studying potential pollinators a bit easier. During a 5 year period, researchers noted that male Eucerine bees were the only insects that regularly visited the flowers and only after their visits did the plants set seed. The bees would arrive at the flowers around dusk and poke around until they found one to their liking. At that point they would crawl down into the floral tube and would not leave again until morning. The anatomy of the flower is such that the bees inevitably contact stamen and stigma in the process. Their resting behavior is repeated night after night until the end of the flowering season and in this way pollination is achieved. Researchers now believe that the Golan iris and its relatives are pollinated solely by these sleeping male bees.

Sadly, the status of the Golan iris is rather bleak. As recent as the year 2000, there were an estimated 2,000 Golan irises in the wild. Today that number has been reduced to a meager 350 individuals. Though there is no single smoking gun to explain this precipitous decline, climate change, cattle grazing, poaching, and military activity have exacted a serious toll on this species. Plants are especially vulnerable during drought years. Individuals stressed by the lack of water succumb to increased pressure from insects and other pests. Vineyards have seen an uptick in Golan in recent years as well, gobbling up viable habitat in the process.

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It is extremely tragic to note that some of the largest remaining populations of Golan irises can be found growing in active mine fields. It would seem that one of the only safe places for these endangered plants to grow are places that are extremely lethal to humans. It would seem that our propensity for violent tribalism has unwittingly led to the preservation of this species for the time being.

At the very least, some work is being done not only to understand what these plants need in order to germinate and survive, but also assess the viability of relocated plants that are threatened by human development. Attempts at transplanting individuals in the past have been met with limited success but thankfully the Oncocyclus irises have caught the eye of bulb growers around the world. By sharing information on the needs of these plants in cultivation, growers can help expand on efforts to save species like the Golan iris.

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

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

 

The Carnivorous Waterwheel

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Bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) aren't the only carnivorous plants stalking prey below the water surface. Meet the waterwheel (Aldrovanda vesiculosa). At first glance it looks rather unassuming but closer inspection will reveal that this carnivore is well equipped for capturing unsuspecting prey. 

The waterwheel never bothers with roots. Instead, it lives out its life as a free floating sprig, its stem it covered in whorls of filamentous leaves, each tipped with a tiny trap. The trapping mechanism is a bit different from its bladderwort neighbors. Instead of bladders, the waterwheel produces snap traps that closely resemble those of the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula). These traps function in a similar way. When zooplankton or even a small fish trigger the bristles along the rim, the trap snaps shut and begins the digestion process.

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This similarity to the Venus fly trap is more than superficial. DNA analysis reveals that they are in fact close cousins. Together with the sundews, these plants make up the family Droseraceae. The evolutionary history of this clade is a bit confusing thanks to a limited fossil record. Today, the waterwheel is the only extant member of the genus Aldrovanda but fossilized seeds and pollen reveal that this group was once a bit more diverse during the Eocene. Whenever these genera diverged, it happened a long time ago and little evidence of it remains.

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At one point in time, the waterwheel could be found growing in wetland habitats throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and even Australia. Today it is considered at risk of extinction. Its numbers have been severely reduced thanks to wetland degradation and destruction. Of the 379 known historical populations, only about 50 remain in tact today and many of these are in rough shape. Agricultural and industrial runoff are exacting a significant toll on its long term survival. To make matters worse, sexual reproduction in the waterwheel is a rare event. Most often this plant reproduces vegetatively, reducing genetic diversity. What's more, natural dispersal into new habitats is extremely limited. 

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Oddly enough, populations of this plant have popped up in a few locations in eastern North America. These introductions were not a mistake either. Carnivorous plant enthusiasts concerned with the plight of this species in its native habitat began introducing it into water ways in New Jersey, New York, and Virginia where it is now established. Oddly enough, these introductions have performed far better than any of the reintroduction attempts made in its native range in Europe. Of course, this is always cause for concern. Endangered or not, the introduction of a species into new habitat is always risky. Still, there is hope yet for this species. Its popularity among plant growers has led to an increase in numbers in cultivation. At least folks have learned how to cultivate it until more comprehensive and effective conservation measures can be put into place. 

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

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

The Giant Genomes of Geophytes

 Canopy plant ( Paris japonica )

Canopy plant (Paris japonica)

A geophyte is any plant with a short, seasonal lifestyle and some form of underground storage organ ( bulb, tuber, thick rhizome, etc.). Plants hailing from a variety of families fall into this category. However, they share more than just a similar life history. A disproportionate amount of geophytic plants also possess massive genomes. 

As we have discussed in previous posts, life isn't easy for geophytes. Cold temperatures, a short growing season, and plenty of hungry herbivores represent countless hurdles that must be overcome. That is why many geophytes opt for rapid growth as soon as conditions are right. However, they don't do this via rapid cell division. 

 Dutchman's breeches ( Dicentra cucullaria ) emerging with preformed buds.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging with preformed buds.

Instead, geophytes spend the "dormant" months pre-growing all of their organs. What's more, the cells that make up their leaves and flowers are generally much larger than cells found in non-geophytes. This is where that large genome comes into plant. If they had to wait until the first few weeks of spring to start their development, a large genome would only get in the way. Their dormant season growth means that these plants don't have to worry about streamlining the process of cellular division. They can take their time. 

As such, an accumulation of genetic material isn't detrimental. Instead, it may actually be quite beneficial for geophytes. Associated with large genomes are things like larger stomata, which helps these plants better regulate their water needs. The large genomes may very well be the reason that many geophytic plants are so good at taking advantage of such ephemeral growing conditions. 

When the right conditions present themselves, geophytes don't waste time. Pre-formed organs like leaves and flowers simply have to fill with water instead of having to wait for tissues to divide and differentiate. Water is plentiful during the spring so geophytes can rely on turgor pressure within their large cells for stability rather than investing in thick cell walls. That is why so many spring blooming plants feel so fleshy to the touch. 

Taken together, we can see how large genomes and a unique growth strategy have allowed these plants to exploit seasonally available habitats. It is worth noting, however, that this is far from the complete picture. With such a wide variety of plant species adopting a geophytic lifestyle, we still have a lot to learn about the secret lives of these plants.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

An Ancient Hawaiian Moss

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The cloud forests of Kohala Mountain on the island of Hawai'i are home to a unique  botanical community. One plant in particular is quite special as it may be one of the most ancient clonal organisms in existence. Look down at your feet and you may find yourself surrounded by a species of moss known as Sphagnum palustre. Although this species enjoys a broad distribution throughout the northern hemisphere, its presence on this remote volcanic island is worth closer inspection. 

Hawai'i is rather depauperate in Sphagnum representatives and those that have managed to get to this archipelago are often restricted to growing in narrow habitable zones between 900 to 1,900 meters in elevation as these are the only spots that are cool and wet enough to support Sphagnum growth. Needless to say, successful colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by Sphagnum has been a rare event.  The fact that Sphagnum palustre was one of the few that did should not come as any surprise. What should surprise you, however, is how this particular species has managed to persist. 

 Mounds of  S. palustre  in its native habitat. 

Mounds of S. palustre in its native habitat. 

Hawaiian moss aficionados have long noted that the entire population of Kohala's S. palustre mats never seem to produce a single female individual. Indeed, this moss is dioicous, meaning individuals are either male or female. As such, many have suspected that the mats of S. palustre growing on Kohala represented a single male individual that has been growing vegetatively ever since it arrived as a spore on the island. The question then becomes, how long has this S. palustre individual been on Kohala?

To answer that, researchers decided to take a look at its DNA. What they discovered was surprising in many ways. For starters, all plants were in fact males of a single individual. A rare genetic trait was found in the DNA of every population they sampled. This trait is so rare that the odds of it turning up in any number by sheer chance is infinitesimally small. What this means is that every S. palustre population found on Kohala is a clone of a single spore that landed on the mountain at some point in the distant past. Exactly how distant was the next question the team wanted to answer. 

 A lush cloud forest on the slopes of Kohala.

A lush cloud forest on the slopes of Kohala.

The first clue to this mystery came from peat deposits found on the slopes of the mountain. Researchers found remains of S. palustre in peat deposits that were dated to somewhere around 24,000 years old. So, it would appear that S. palustre has been growing on Kohala since at least the late Pleistocene. But how long before that time did this moss arrive?

Again, DNA was the key to unlocking this mystery. By studying the rate at which mutations arise and fix themselves within the genetic code of this plant, they were able to estimate the average rate of mutation through time. By sampling different moss populations on Kohala, they could then use those estimates to figure out just how long each mat has been growing. Their estimates suggest that the ancestral male sport arrived on Hawai'i somewhere between 49,000 and 50,000 years ago and it has been cloning itself ever since. 

 A large mat of  S. palustre

A large mat of S. palustre

As if that wasn't remarkable in and of itself, their thorough analysis of the genetic diversity within S. palustre revealed a remarkable amount of genetic diversity for a clonal organism. Though not all genetic mutations are beneficial, enough of them have managed to fix themselves into the DNA of the moss clones over thousands of years. The DNA of S. palustre is challenging long-held assumptions about genetic diversity of asexual organisms.

Of course, no conversation about Hawaiian botany would be complete without mention of invasive species. As one can expect at this point, Kohala's S. palustre populations are being crowded out by more aggressive vegetation introduced from elsewhere in the world. Unlike a lot of Hawaiian plants, however, the clonal habit of S. palustre puts a more nuanced twist to this story. 

Because Sphagnum is spongy yet durable, it has often been used as packing material. Packages stuffed with S. palustre from Kohala have been sent all over the island and because of this, S. palustre is now showing up en masse on other islands in the archipelago. Sadly, when it starts to grow in habitats that have never experienced the ecosystem engineering traits of a Sphagnum  moss, S. palustre gets pretty out of hand. It's not just packages that spread it either. All it takes is one sprig of the moss stuck on someone's boot to start a new colony elsewhere. The unique flora elsewhere in the Hawaiian archipelago have not evolved to compete with S. palustre and as a result, escaped populations are rapidly changing the ecology to the detriment of other endemic Hawaiian plants. 

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

Further Reading: [1] [2] 

The Pima Pineapple Cactus

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The Pima pineapple cactus (Coryphantha robustispina) is a federally endangered cactus native to the Sonoran Desert. It is a relatively small cactus by most standards, a fact that can make it hard to find even with a trained eye. Sadly, the plight of this cactus is shared by myriad other plant species of this arid region. Urbanization, fire, grazing, and illegal collection are an ever present threat thanks to our insatiable need to gobble up habitat we should never have occupied in the first place. 

Deserts are lands of extremes and the Pima pineapple cactus seems ready for whatever its habitat can throw its way (naturally). Plants are usually found growing individually but older specimens take on a clustered clonal habit. During the winter months, the Pima pineapple cactus shrivels and waits until warmth returns. Come spring, the Pima pineapple cactus begins anew. On mature specimens, flower buds begin to develop once the plant senses an increase in daylight. 

The flower buds continue to develop well into summer but seem to stop after a certain point. Then, with the onset of the summer monsoons, flower buds quickly mature and open all at once. It is thought that this evolved as a means of synchronizing reproductive events among widely spaced populations. You see, seed set in this species is best achieved via cross pollination. With such low numbers and a lot of empty space in between, these cacti must maximize the chances of cross pollination.

If they were to flower asynchronously, the chances of an insect finding its way to two different individuals is low. By flowering together in unison, the chances of cross pollination are greatly increased. No one is quite sure exactly how these cacti manage to coordinate these mass flowering events but one line of reasoning suggests that the onset of the monsoon has something to do with it. It is possible that as plants start to take up much needed water, this triggers the dormant flower buds to kick into high gear and finish their development. More work is needed to say for sure.

Seed dispersal for this species comes in the form of a species of hare called the antelope jackrabbit. Jackrabbits consume Pima fruits and disperse them across the landscape as they hop around. However, seed dispersal is just one part of the reproductive process. In order to germinate and survive, Pima pineapple cacti seeds need to end up in the right kind of habitat. Research has shown that the highest germination and survival rates occur only when there is enough water around to fuel those early months of growth. As such, years of drought can mean years of no reproduction for the Pima.

Taken together, it is no wonder then why the Pima pineapple cactus is in such bad shape. Populations can take years to recover if they even manage to at all. Sadly, humans have altered their habitat to such a degree that serious action will be needed to bring this species back from the brink of extinction. Aside from the usual suspects like habitat fragmentation and destruction, invasive species are playing a considerable role in the loss of Pima populations. 

Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana) was introduced to Arizona in the 1930's and it has since spread to cover huge swaths of land. What is most troubling about this grass is that it has significantly altered the fire regime of these desert ecosystems. Whereas there was once very little fuel for fires to burn through, dense stands of Lehmann lovegrass now offer plenty of stuff to burn. Huge, destructive fires can spread across the landscape and the native desert vegetation simply cannot handle the heat. Countless plants are killed by these burns.

Sometimes, if they are lucky, large cacti can resprout following a severe burn, however, all too often they do not. Entire populations can be killed by a single fire. What few plants remain are frequent targets of poaching. Cacti are quite a hit in the plant trade and sadly people will pay big money for rare specimens. The endangered status of the Pima pineapple cactus makes it a prized target for greedy collectors. 

The future of the Pima pineapple cactus is decidedly uncertain. Thankfully its placement on the endangered species list has afforded it a bit more attention from a conservation standpoint. Still, we know very little about this plant and more data are going to be needed if we are to develop sound conservation measures. This, my friends, is why land conservation is so important. Plants like the Pima pineapple cactus need places to grow. If we do not work harder on setting aside wild spaces, we will lose so much more than this species. 

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

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