Life With Endophytic Fungi

Endophytic fungi living in the cells of a grass leaf.

Endophytic fungi living in the cells of a grass leaf.

Talk about plants long enough and fungi eventually make their way into the conversation. These two walks of life are inextricably linked and probably have been since the earliest days. At this point we are well aware of beneficial fungal partners like mycorrhizae or pathogens like the cedar apple rust. Another type of relationship we are only starting to fully appreciate is that of plants and endophytic fungi living in their above ground tissues. 

Endophytic fungi have been discovered in many different types of plants, however, it is best studied in grasses. The closer we look at these symbiotic relationships, the more complex the picture becomes. There are many ways in which plants can benefit from the presence of these fungi in their tissues and it appears that some plants even stock their seeds with fungi, which appears to give their offspring a better chance at establishment. 

To start, the benefits to the fungi are rather straight forward. They get a relatively safe place to live within the tissues of a plant. They also gain access to all of the carbohydrates the plants produce via photosynthesis. This is not unlike what we see with mycorrhizae. But what about the plants? What could they gain from letting fungi live in and around their cells?

One amazing benefit endophytic fungi offer plants is protection. Fungi are famous for the chemical cocktails they produce and many of these can harm animals. Such benefits vary from plant to plant and fungi to fungi, however, the overall effect is largely the same. Herbivores feeding on plants like grasses that have been infected with endophytic fungi are deterred from doing so either because the fungi make the plant distasteful or downright toxic. It isn't just big herbivores that are deterred either. Evidence has shown that insects are also affected.

There is even some evidence to suggest that these anti-herbivore compounds might have influences farther up the food chain. It usually takes a lot of toxins to bring down a large herbivore, however, some of these toxins have the potential to build up in the tissues of some herbivores and therefore may influence their appeal to predators. Some have hypothesized that the endophytic fungal toxins may make herbivores more susceptible to predators. Perhaps the toxins make the herbivores less cautious or slow them down, making them more likely targets. Certainly more work is needed before anyone can say for sure.

Italian ryegrass ( Lolium multiflorum ) is one of the most studied grasses that host endophytic fungi.

Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) is one of the most studied grasses that host endophytic fungi.

Another amazing example deals with parasitoids like wasps that lay their eggs in other insects. Researchers found that female parasitoid wasps can discriminate between aphids that have been feeding on plants with endophytic fungi and those without endophytic fungi. Wasp larvae developed more slowly and had a shorter lifespan when raised in aphids that have fed on endophytic fungi plants. As such, the distribution of plants with endophytic symbionts may have serious ramifications for parasitoid abundance in any given habitat.

Another benefit these endophytic fungi offer plants is increased photosynthesis. Amazingly, some grasses appear to photosynthesize better with endophytic fungi living in their tissues than plants without fungi. There are many mechanisms by which this may work but to simplify the matter, it appears that by producing defense compounds, endophytic fungi allow the plant to redistribute their metabolic processes towards photosynthesis and growth. In return, the plants produce more carbohydrates that then feed the fungi living in their tissues. 

One of the most remarkable aspects about the relationship between endophytic fungi and plants is that the plants can pass these fungi on to their offspring. Fungi are able to infect the tissues of the host plants' seeds and therefore can be carried with the seeds wherever they go. As the seedlings grow, so do the fungi. Some evidence suggests this gives infected seedlings a leg up on the competition. Other studies have not found such pronounced effects.

Still other studies have shown that it may not be fungi in the seeds that make a big difference but rather the fungi present in the decaying tissues of plants growing around them. Endophytic fungi have been shown to produce allelopathic compounds that poison neighboring plants. Areas receiving lots of plant litter containing endophytic fungi produced fewer plants but these plants grew larger than areas without endophytic fungi litter. Perhaps this reduces competition in favor of plant species than can host said endophytes. Again, this has potentially huge ramifications for the diversity and abundance of plant species living in a given area.

We are only beginning to understand the role of endophytic fungi in the lives of plants and the communities they make up. To date, it would appear that endophytic fungi are potentially having huge impacts on ecosystems around the globe. It goes without saying that more research is needed.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

                                                        

Meet the Crypts

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If you have ever spent time in an aquarium store, you have undoubtedly come across a Cryptocoryne or two. Indeed, these plants are most famous for their indispensable role in aquascaping freshwater aquaria. As organisms, however, crypts receive considerably less attention. Nonetheless, a handful of dedicated botanists have devoted time and effort to understanding this wonderful genus of tropical Aroids. What follows is a brief introduction to the world of Cryptocoryne plants. 

Cryptocoryne is a genus that currently consists of around 60 - 65 species, all of which are native to tropical regions of Asia and New Guinea. Every few years it seems at least one or two new species are added to this list and without a doubt, more species await discovery. All crypts are considered aquatic to one degree or another. Ecologically speaking, however, species fall into four broad categories based on the types of habitats they prefer.

Cryptocoryne cognata in situ .

Cryptocoryne cognata in situ.

The most familiar crypts grow along the banks of slow-moving rivers and streams and find themselves submerged for a large portion of their life. Others grow in seasonally flooded habitats and experience a pronounced dry season. These species usually go dormant until flood waters return. Still others can be found growing in swampy forested habitats, often in acidic peat swamps. Finally, a few crypts have adapted to living in tidal zones in both fresh and brackish waters.

Like all aquatic plants, crypts face a lot of challenges living in water. One of the biggest challenges is reproduction. Despite their aquatic nature, crypts will not flower successfully underwater. If growing submerged, most crypt species reproduce vegetatively via a creeping rhizome. As such, crypts often form large, clonal colonies in both the wild and in aquaria, a fact that has made a few crypts aggressive invaders in places like Florida.

Cryptocoryne wendtii  is one of the most common species in the aquarium trade. Its textured leaves are thought to have a higher surface area, allowing this plant to thrive in shaded aquatic habitats.

Cryptocoryne wendtii is one of the most common species in the aquarium trade. Its textured leaves are thought to have a higher surface area, allowing this plant to thrive in shaded aquatic habitats.

Given proper hydrologic cycles, however, crypts will flower and when they do, it is truly a sight to behold. As is typical of aroids, crypts produce an inflorescence comprised of a spadix with whirls of male and female flowers covered by a decorative sheath called a spathe. This spathe is the key to successful flowering among the various crypt species.

Species like  C. becketti  have become invasive in places like Florida, no doubt thanks to aquarium hobbyists.

Species like C. becketti have become invasive in places like Florida, no doubt thanks to aquarium hobbyists.

If the spathe were to open underwater, the inflorescence would quickly rot. Instead, most crypts seem to have an uncanny ability to sense water levels. At early stages of development, the spathe completely encloses the developing spadix in a water tight package. The tubular spathe continues to grow upward until the top has breached the surface. Consequently, the overall length of a crypt inflorescence is highly variable depending on the water level of its habitat. Crypts living in tidal zones take this a step further. Somehow they are able to time their flowering events to the ebb and flow of the tides, only producing flowers during periods of the month when tides are at their lowest.

Cryptocoryne ligua

Cryptocoryne ligua

With the tip of the inflorescence safely above water, the spathe will finally open revealing their surprisingly complex anatomy and coloration. It is a shame that most crypt growers never get to see such floral splendor in person. The spathe of many crypt species emit a faint but unpleasant odor. Additionally, some species adorn the spathe with fringes that, coupled with stark coloration, is thought to improve the chances of pollinator visitation.

Pollinators are poorly studied among crypts, however, it is thought that small flies take up the bulk of the work. Lured in by the promise of a rotting meal on which they can feed and lay their eggs, the flies become trapped inside the long tube of the spathe. Like the pitfall traps of a pitcher plant, the inner walls of the spathe are coated in a waxy substance that keeps the insects from crawling out before they do their job.

In general, the female flowers mature first. If the insect inside has visited a crypt of the same species the day before, it is likely carrying pollen and thus deposits said pollen onto the stigmas of the current crypt. After the female flowers have had a chance at being fertilized, the male flowers then mature. The insects inside are then dusted with new pollen, the walls of the spathe lose their slippery properties, and the insects are released in hopes of repeated the process again.

The fruit of a  Cryptocoryne  is called a syncarp.

The fruit of a Cryptocoryne is called a syncarp.

To the best of my knowledge, most crypts are not self-compatible. Instead, plants must receive pollen from unrelated individuals to set seed. Because large crypt colonies are often made up of clones of a single mother plant, sexual reproduction can be rather infrequent among the various species. Nonetheless sexual reproduction does occur and the seeds are produced in a different way than most other aroids. Instead of berries, crypts produce their seeds in a aggregated collection of fruits called a syncarp. When ripe, the syncarp opens like a little star and the seeds float away on the current.

One species, Cryptocoryne ciliata, takes seed production to a whole different level by producing viviparous seeds. Before the syncarp even opens, the seeds actually germinate on the mother plant. In this way, tiny seedlings complete with roots and leaves are released instead of seeds. Seedlings have a much greater surface area than seeds and readily get stuck in mud as well as other aquatic vegetation. In this way, C. ciliata offspring get a jump start on the establishment process. It is no wonder then that C. ciliata has one of the widest distributions of any of the crypt species.

Cryptocoryne ciliata

Cryptocoryne ciliata

Despite plenty of overlap among the ranges of various crypt species, the genus displays an amazing array of variation. Some have likened crypts to Araceae's version of Darwin's finches in that the unique ecology of each species appears to have created barriers to species introgression. Though hybrids do occur, each crypt seems to maintain its own niche via a unique habitat requirement, differing flower phenology, or a specific set of pollinators. It would appear that much can be learned about the mechanics of speciation by studying the various Cryptocoryne and their habits.

Unfortunately, the limited geographic distribution and specific habitat requirements of crypt species is cause for concern. Many are growing more and more rare as human settlements expand and destroy valuable crypt habitat. As popular as some crypts may be in cultivation, many others have proven too idiosyncratic to grow on a commercial level. More work is certainly needed to properly assess populations and bring plants into cultivation as a form of ex situ conservation.

Cryptocoryne cordata  Var. Siamensis 'Rosanervig' is a contoversial variety names recognized by the stark patterns of venation on its leaves.

Cryptocoryne cordata Var. Siamensis 'Rosanervig' is a contoversial variety names recognized by the stark patterns of venation on its leaves.

Proper study is further complicated by the fact that many crypt species are highly plastic. They have to be in order to survive the rigors of their aquatic environment. True species identification can really only be assessed when flowers are present and some populations seem to prefer vegetative over sexual reproduction a majority of the time. A multitude of subspecies exist, though the degree to which they should be formally recognized is up for debate.

I think it is safe to say that Cryptocoryne is a genus worth far more attention than it currently receives. They are without a doubt important components of the ecology of their native habitats and humans would do well to understand them a bit better. With a bit more attention from botanical gardens and other conservation organizations, perhaps the future for many crypts does not have to be so bleak.

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

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

 

The Rose of Jericho

To survive in a desert, plants must eek out an existence in specific microclimates that provide conditions that are only slightly better than the surrounding landscape. Such is the case for the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This tenacious little mustard is found throughout arid regions of the Middle East and the Saharan Desert and it has been made famous the world over for its "resurrection" abilities. It is also the subject of much speculation so today we are going to separate fact from fiction and reveal what years of research has taught about this desert survivor. 

Natural selection has shaped this species into an organism fully ready to take advantage of those fleeting moments when favorable growing conditions present themselves. A. hierochuntica makes its living in dry channels called runnels or wadis, which concentrate water during periods of rain. It is a desert annual meaning the growth period of any individual is relatively short. Once all the water in the sandy soil has evaporated, this plant shrivels up and dies. This is not the end of its story though. With a little luck, the plants were pollinated and multiple spoon-shaped fruits have formed on its stems.

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As the dead husk of the plant starts to dry out, its branches curl up into a ball-like mass with most of the fruits tucked away in the interior. There the plant will sit, often for many years, until rain returns. When rain does finally arrive, things happen fast. After all, who knows how long it will be before it rains again. Thanks to a quirk of physiology, the dried tissues of A. hierochuntica are extremely elastic and can return to their normal shape and position once hydrated. As the soil soaks up water, the dried up stems and roots just under the surface also begin taking up water and the stems unfurl.

To call this resurrection is being a bit too generous. The plant is not returning to life. Instead, its dead tissues simply expand as they imbibe liquid. Water usually does not come to the desert without rain and rain is exactly what A. hierochuntica needs to complete its life cycle. Unfurling of its stems exposes its spoon-shaped fruits to the elements. Their convex shape is actually an adaptation for seed dispersal by rain, a mechanism termed ombrohydrochory. When a raindrop hits the fruit, it catapults the seed outward from the dead parent.

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If rains are light, seeds do not get very far. They tend to cluster around the immediate area of their parent. If rains are heavy, however, seeds can travel quite a distance. This is why one will only ever find this species growing in channels. During the rare occasions when those channels fill with water, seeds quickly float away on the current. In fact, experts believe that the buoyancy of A. hierochuntica seed is an adaptation that evolved in response to flooding events. It is quite ironic that water dispersal is such an important factor for a plant growing in some of the driest habitats on Earth.

To aid in germination, the seeds themselves are coated in a material that becomes mucilaginous upon wetting. When the seeds eventually come into contact with the soil, the mucilage sticks to the ground and causes the seeds to adhere to the surface upon drying. This way, they are able to effectively germinate instead of blowing around in the wind.

Again, things happen fast for A. hierochuntica. Most of its seeds will germinate within 12 hours of rainfall. Though they are relatively drought tolerant, the resulting seedlings nonetheless cannot survive without water. As such, their quick germination allows them to make the most out of fleeting wet conditions.

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Occasionally, the balled up husks of these plants will become dislodged from the sand and begin to blow around the landscape like little tumbleweeds. This has led some to suggest that A. hierochuntica utilizes this as a form a seed dispersal, scattering seeds about the landscape as it bounces around in the wind. Though this seems like an appealing hypothesis, experts believe that this is not the best means of disseminating propagules. Seeds dispersed in this way are much less likely to end up in favorable spots for germination. Though it certainly occurs, it is likely that this is just something that happens from time to time rather than something the plant has evolved to do.

In total, the Rose of Jericho is one tough cookie. Thanks to quick germination and growth, it is able to take advantage of those rare times when its desert environment become hospitable.

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

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

The Curious Case of the Yellowwood Tree

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The immense beauty and grace of the yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is inversely proportional to its abundance. This unique legume is endemic to the eastern United States and enjoys a strangely patchy distribution. Its ability to perform well when planted far outside of its natural range only deepens the mystery of the yellowwood.

The natural range of the yellowwood leaves a lot of room for speculation. It hits its highest abundances in the Appalachian and Ozark highlands where it tends to grow on shaded slopes in calcareous soils. Scattered populations can be found as far west as Oklahoma and as far north as southern Indiana but nowhere is this tree considered a common component of the flora.

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Though the nature of its oddball distribution pattern is open for plenty of speculation, it is likely that its current status is the result of repeated glaciation events and a dash of stochasticity. The presence of multiple Cladrastis species in China and Japan and only one here in North America is a pattern shared by multiple taxa that once grew throughout each continent. A combination of geography, topography, and repeated glaciation events has since fragmented the ranges of many genera and perhaps Cladrastis is yet another example.

The fact that yellowwood seems to do quite well as a specimen tree well outside of its natural range says to me that this species was probably once far more wide spread in North America than it was today. It may have been pushed south by the ebb and flow of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and, due to the stochastic nuances of seed dispersal, never had a chance to recolonize the ground it had lost. Again, this is all open to speculation as this point.

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Despite being a member of the pea family, yellowwood is not a nitrogen fixer. It does not produce nodules on its roots that house rhizobium. As such, this species may be more restricted by soil type than other legumes. Perhaps its inability to fix nitrogen is part of the reason it tends to favor richer soils. It may also have played a part in its failure to recolonize land scraped clean by the glaciers.

Yellowwood's rarity in nature only makes finding this tree all the more special. It truly is a site to behold. It isn't a large tree by any standards but what it lacks in height it makes up for in looks. Its multi-branched trunk exhibits smooth, gray bark reminiscent of beech trees. Each limb is decked out in large, compound leaves that turn bright yellow in autumn.

When mature, which can take upwards of ten years, yellowwood produces copious amounts of pendulous inflorescences. Each inflorescence sports bright white flowers with a dash of yellow on the petals. It doesn't appear that any formal pollination work has been done on this tree but surely bees and butterflies alike visit the blooms. The name yellowwood comes from the yellow coloration of its heartwood, which has been used to make furniture and gunstocks in the past.

Whether growing in the forest or in your landscape, yellowwood is one of the more stunning trees you will find in eastern North America. Its peculiar natural history only lends to its allure.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Mystery of the Ghost Plant

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As houseplants enjoy a resurgence in our culture, untold numbers of novice and expert growers alike will have undoubtedly tried their luck at a succulent or two. Succulent, of course, is not a taxonomic division, but rather a way of describing the anatomy of myriad plants adapted to harsh, dry environments around the world. One of the most common succulents in the trade is the ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense).

I would bet that, if you are reading this and you grow houseplants, you have probably grown a ghost plant at one point or another. They are easy to grow and will propagate a whole new plant from only a single leaf. Despite its worldwide popularity, the ghost plant is shrouded in mystery and confusion. To date, we know next to nothing about its ecology. Much of this stems from poor record keeping and the fact that we have no idea exactly where this species originated.

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That's right, we do not know the location of its native habitat. Records indicate that the first plants to find their way into human hands were imported into New York in 1904. Apparently, they were growing as "weeds" at the base of some South American cacti. Plants were lucky enough to wind up in the hands of competent botanists and the species has ended up with the name Graptopetalum paraguayense. The specific epithet "paraguayense" was an indication of much confusion to come as it was thought that the ghost plant originated in Paraguay.

Time has barely improved our knowledge. Considering many of its relatives hail from Mexico, it gradually became more apparent that South America could not claim this species as its own. Luck changed only relatively recently with the discovery of a population of a unique color variant of the ghost plant on a single mountain in northeastern Mexico. A thorough search of the area did not reveal any plants that resemble the plant so many of us know and love. It has been suggested that the original population from which the type species was described is probably growing atop an isolated mountain peak somewhere nearby in the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Despite all of the mystery surrounding this species, we can nonetheless elucidate some aspects about its biology by observing plants in cultivation. It goes without saying that the ghost plant is a species of dry, nutrient-poor habitats. Its succulence and tolerance of a wide array of soil conditions is a testament to its hardy disposition. Also, if plants are grown in full sun, they develop a bluish, waxy coating on their leaves. This is likely a form of sunscreen that the plant produces to protect it from sun scorch. As such, one can assume that its native habitat is quite sunny, though its ability to tolerate shade suggests it likely shares its habitat with shrubby vegetation as well. Given enough time and proper care, ghost plants will produce sprays of erect, 5 pointed flowers. It is not known who might pollinate them in the wild.

It is always interesting to me that a plant can be so well known to growers while at the same time being a complete mystery in every other way. A search of the literature shows that most of the scientific attention given to the ghost plant centers on potentially useful compounds that can be extracted from its tissues. Such is the case for far too many plant species, both known and unknown alike. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, some intrepid botanist will at last scramble up the right mountain and rediscover the original habitat of this wonderful plant. Until then, I hope this small introduction provides you with a new found appreciation for this wonderfully adaptable houseplant.

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

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

 

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]