The Vernal Dam Hypothesis


I have already established that spring ephemerals are badasses ( but what I am about to tell you is really going to kick it up a notch...

While offering our native pollinators some much needed food resources along with giving us humans a much needed jolt of life after a long and dreary winter, spring ephemerals like these trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), are important nutrient sinks for forests.

Back in 1978, a guy by the name of Robert Muller put forth a very intriguing idea known as the vernal-dam hypothesis. Basically, he proposed the idea that soil nutrients are heavily leached into waterways during the spring melt and subsequent rains. Where spring ephemerals are present, they act as nutrient sinks, taking up much of the nutrients that would otherwise be lost. The idea was well liked but unfortunately, the important assumptions of this hypothesis were not tested until the last decade or so. Recently, more attention is being paid to this concept and some research is being published that do indeed support his claims!

Though the research does not address whether or not the nutrients really would be lost from the system in the absence of spring ephemerals, it is showing that some species really do serve as nutrient sinks. Trout lily, for instance, is a massive sink for nitrogen and potassium. As they grow they take in more and more. When the warmer summer weather hits and the leaves die back, they then release a lot of nutrients back into soil where vigorously growing plants are ready to take it up. It should be noted that trees will still take in nutrients even before leafing out for the summer. One study even showed that net uptake of nitrogen and potassium by a variety of spring ephemeral species is nearly equal to the net annual losses. I must admit that I did not quite understand what the "losses" are in this particular study but the evidence is tantalizing nonetheless. In one example, nitrogen uptake by ephemerals was 12% of the nitrogen in annual tree litter!

Whether or not it is shown that nutrients taken up by ephemerals would otherwise be loss is, in my opinion, beyond the point. What has been demonstrated in the ability of spring ephemeral species to uptake and store vital forest nutrients suggests major ecosystem benefit! Furthermore, when you consider the fact that mycorrhizal fungi are non-specific in most cases and will bond with many different plant species and then go as far as sharing nutrients among the forest flora, you really start to see a big picture story that has been playing out all over the world for millennia. 

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