Meeting One of North America's Rarest Oaks

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A post (and photos) by Robbie Q. Telfer

“Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived.”

-- E.O. mothereffin Wilson

One of the perks of working at The Morton Arboretum is you get to see cool lectures on tree science for free. At one such program, Dr. Mary Ashley from the University of Illinois at Chicago was sharing her research on oak pollen and how far it can travel to fertilize female flowers (far). She looked at not only trees in the Chicago region, but also oaks off the coast of California and in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas, as well as throughout Mexico. That latter oak was a shrubby species called Quercus hinckleyi or Hinckley oak. It is able to spread pollen over far distances as well, despite the fact that there are only 123 individuals known to be left. IUCN lists it as Critically Endangered.

As she was telling us this, it occured to me that I would be in West Texas soon to visit my sister-in-law, so afterwards I approached Dr. Ashley and asked if there was any way I could have the coordinates of Q. hinckleyi so that I could visit it, take a selfie, and luxuriate in the presence of something so rare. I made it clear to her that I understood just how important it was to keep this information a secret, because the last thing this relict needs is to be uprooted by poachers. Which I wish wasn’t a concern, but it is.

Dr. Ashley put me in touch with her colleague Janet Backs who graciously shared the coordinates. I could see the plants from Google maps satellite view. There they were. I probably waved at the computer screen sheepishly.

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As I waited for my time to bask in the majesty of botanical greatness, I consulted my copy of Oaks of North America (1985) by Howard Miller and Samuel Lamb to see what the entry for hinckleyi said.

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Notably, it mentions that “This is another of the oaks with no specific value, except as a curiosity.” More on that later.

After much anticipation, the time was upon us. I decided to drive out to the plants in my rental first thing in the morning after getting to Texas. The Chihuahuan Desert is an astounding place that my Illinoisan eyes weren’t altogether prepared for. It is perhaps the most biodiverse desert in the world, and compared to our prairies, woodlands, and wetlands, it feels like a different planet. Some of the cooler plants I got to see were tree cholla (Cholla sp.), Havard’s century plant (Agave havardiana), Wright’s cliffbrake (Pellaea wrightiana), and little buckthorn (Condalia ericoides). And also a family of introduced aoudads with TWO adorable babies. I also got to see my first javelina (as roadkill) and all kinds of birds new to me.

Tree cholla ( Cholla  sp.)

Tree cholla (Cholla sp.)

Havard’s century plant ( Agave havardiana )

Havard’s century plant (Agave havardiana)

Wright’s cliffbrake ( Pellaea wrightiana )

Wright’s cliffbrake (Pellaea wrightiana)

Little buckthorn ( Condalia ericoides )

Little buckthorn (Condalia ericoides)

Aoudads in the distance.

Aoudads in the distance.

Finally I got to the coordinates - luckily google preloaded the directions on my phone because there was absolutely no cell service where I was. I parked and walked to the plants. And lo, I present to you, Quercus hinckleyi.

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It’s in the white oak family, which I guess means more than just “has round leaves.” These leaves look like holly, and even the shed ones on the ground still had some stabbiness left in them. It’s quite diminutive - certainly compared to any oak I’ve ever seen and even by shrub standards. I’d pinch its cheeks if that wouldn’t make my fingers bleed. After getting the pics I needed and doing the atheist’s version of saying a prayer over it, I floated back to my car like a cartoon cat in love.

The rest of the trip was great and I can’t wait to go back.

Since returning, I have shown several of my non-plant nerd friends the pics of hinckleyi and they seem politely impressed but not, like, actually impressed. This is totally understandable! If your experience with plants is on the order of what looks best in a planting or what tastes best in your tummy, this shrub is not for you. After all “it’s only value is as a curiosity.”

I don’t know about that. I feel like it’s value is greater than that for humans - it’s a window into the North American continent before the climate shifted 10,000 years ago, it’s an individual member of our vast botanical heritage, it is unique, it is adorbs, and it helped Dr. Ashley, and therefore us, understand more things about the movement of oak pollen.

But beyond what it does for US, what if, and hear me out, what if it has a right to existence on its own, without being displaced by pipelines or aoudads or poachers? It is a member of its ecological community, and just like I feel a loss when a member of my community passes, we don’t have the language to articulate what is felt when a member of an ecosystem winks out forever.

Janet Backs told me that she heard of someone who was trying to poach acorns from a subpopulation of hinckleyi and that the landowners where that shrub is actually chased those folks for miles and miles down the road. I love that. I wish every single threatened species/subpopulation had someone who understood its value beyond what it does for humans enough to chase people, possibly with a gun, for miles and miles.

I have had a paltry bucket list for most of my adult life - boring stuff like meeting my heroes or getting to a 7th bowl of never-ending-pasta. But despite their apparent lack of reverence for Q. hinckleyi I think a pretty good guiding list for me would be to visit each of the 77 oaks of North America in their native habitats. I know they won’t all be as special as this experience, but what better way to visit the corners of this continent and its myriad ecological communities, than by visiting each of its oaks? I currently can’t think of any, and would invite anyone to, if not fund me, join me.

Maxipiñon: One of the Rarest Pines in the World

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The maxipiñon (Pinus maximartinezii) is one of the rarest pines on Earth. A native of southern Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico, nearly all individuals of this species can be found scattered over an area that collectively spans only about 3 to 6 square miles (5 – 10 km²) in size. Needless to say, the maxipiñon teeters on the brink of extinction. As a result, a lot of effort has been put forward to better understand this species and to develop plans aimed at ensuring it is not lost forever.

The maxipiñon has only been known to science for a few decades. It was described back in 1964 after botanist Jerzy Rzedowski noted some exceptionally large pine seeds for sale at a local market. He named the species in honor of Maximino Martínez, who contributed greatly to our understanding of Mexican conifers. However, it was very obvious that the maxipiñon was well known among the residents of Zacatecas.

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The reason for this are its seeds. The maxipiñon is said to produce the largest and most nutritious seeds of all the pines. As such, it is a staple of the regional diet. Conversations with local farmers suggest that it was much more common as recent as 60 years ago. Since then, its numbers have been greatly reduced. It soon became apparent that in order to save this species, we had to learn a lot more about what threatens its survival.

The most obvious place to start was recruitment. If any species is to survive, reproduction must outpace death. A survey of local markets revealed that a lot of maxipiñon seeds were being harvest from the wild. This would be fine if maxipiñon were widespread but this is not the case. Over-harvesting of seeds could spell disaster for a species with such small population sizes.

Indeed, surveys of wild maxipiñon revealed there to be only 2,000 to 2,500 mature individuals and almost no seedlings. However, mature trees do produce a considerable amount of cones. Therefore, the conclusion was made that seed harvesting may be the single largest threat to this tree. Subsequent research has suggested that seed harvests actually may not be the cause of its rarity. It turns out, maxipiñon population growth appears to be rather insensitive to the number of seeds produced each year. Instead, juvenile tree survival seems to form the biggest bottleneck to population growth.

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You see, this tree appears to be more limited by suitable germination sites than it does seed numbers. It doesn’t matter if thousands of seeds are produced if very few of them ever find a good spot to grow. Because of this, scientists feel that there are other more serious threats to the maxipiñon than seed harvesting. However, humans are still not off the hook. Other human activities proved to be far more damaging.

About 50 years ago, big changes were made to local farming practices. More and more land was being cleared for cattle grazing. Much of that clearing was done by purposefully setting fires. The bark of the maxipiñon is very thin, which makes it highly susceptible to fire. As fires burn through its habitat, many trees are killed. Those that survive must then contend with relentless overgrazing by cattle. If that wasn’t enough, the cleared land also becomes highly eroded, thus further reducing its suitability for maxipiñon regeneration. Taken together, these are the biggest threats to the ongoing survival of this pine. Its highly fragmented habitat no longer offers suitable sites for seedling growth and survival.

As with any species this rare, issues of genetic diversity also come into play. Though molecular analyses have shown that maxipiñon does not currently suffer from inbreeding, it has revealed some interesting data that give us hints into the deeper history of this species. Written in maxipiñon DNA is evidence of an extreme population bottleneck that occurred somewhere between 400 and 1000 years ago. It appears that this is not the first time this tree has undergone population decline.

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There are a few ways in which these data can be interpreted. One is that the maxipiñon evolved relatively recently from a small number of unique and isolated individuals. Perhaps a hybridization event occurred between two closely related piñon species - the weeping piñon (Pinus pinceana) and Nelson piñon (Pinus nelsonii). Another possibility, which does not rule out hybridization, is that the maxipiñon may actually be the result of artificial selection by agriculturists of the region. Considering the value of its seeds today, it is not hard to imagine farmers selecting and breeding piñon for larger seeds. It goes without saying that these claims are largely unsubstantiated and would require much more evidence to say with any certainty, however, there is plenty of evidence that civilizations like the Mayans were conserving and propagation useful tree species much earlier than this.

Despite all we have learned about the maxipiñon over the last few decades, the fate of this tree is far from secure. Ex situ conservation efforts are well underway and you can now see maxipiñon specimens growing in arboreta and botanical gardens around the world. Seeds from these populations are being used for storage and to propagate more trees. Sadly, until something is done to protect the habitat on which it relies, there is no telling how long this species will last in the wild. This is why habitat conservation efforts are so important. Please support local land conservation efforts in your area because the maxipiñon is but one species facing the loss of its habitat.

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

Further Reading [1] [2] [3]

The Tecate Cypress: A Tree Left Hanging in the Balance

The tecate cypress is a relict. Its tiny geographic distribution encompasses a handful of sights in southern California and northwestern Mexico. It is a holdover from a time when this region was much cooler and wetter than it is today. It owes its survival and persistence to a combination of toxic soils, a proper microclimate, and fires that burn through every 30 to 40 years. However, things are changing for the Tecate cypress and they are changing fast. The fires that once ushered in new life for isolated populations of this tree are now so intense that they may spell disaster.

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The taxonomy of the Tecate cypress has undergone a few revisions since it was first described. Early work on this species suggested it was simply a variety of Cupressus guadalupensis. Subsequent genetic testing revealed that these two trees were distinct enough to each warrant species status of their own. It was then given the name Cupressus forbesii, which will probably be familiar to most folks who know it well. Work done on the Tecate cypress back in 2012 has seen it moved out of the genus Cupressus and into the genus Hesperocyparis. As far as I am concerned, whether you call it Cupressus forbesii or Hesperocyparis forbesii matters not at this point.

The Tecate cypress is an edaphic endemic meaning it is found growing only on specific soil types in this little corner of the continent. It appears to prefer soils derived from ultramafic rock. The presence of high levels of heavy metals and low levels of important nutrients such and potassium and nitrogen make such soils extremely inhospitable to most plants. As such, the Tecate cypress experiences little competition from its botanical neighbors. It also means that populations of this tree are relatively small and isolated from one another.

The Tecate cypress also relies on fire for reproduction. Its tiny cones are serotinous, meaning they only open and release seeds in response to a specific environmental trigger. In this case, its the heat of a wildfire. Fire frees up the landscape of competition for the tiny Tecate cypress seedlings. After a low intensity fire, literally thousands of Tecate cypress seedlings can germinate. Even if the parent trees burn to a crisp, the next generation is there, ready to take their place.

At least this is how it has happened historically. Much has changed in recent decades and the survival of these isolated Tecate cypress populations hangs in the balance. Fires that once gave life are now taking it. You see, decades of fire suppression have changed that way fire behaves in this system. With so much dry fuel laying around, fires burn at a higher intensity than they have in the past. What's more, fires sweep through much more frequently today than they have in the past thanks to longer and longer droughts.

Taken together, this can spell disaster for small, isolated Tecate cypress populations. Even if thousands of seedlings germinate and begin to grow, the likelihood of another fire sweeping through within a few years is much higher today. Small seedlings are not well suited to cope with such intense wildfires and an entire generation can be killed in a single blaze. This is troubling when you consider the age distributions of most Tecate cypress stands. When you walk into a stand of these trees, you will quickly realize that all are of roughly the same age. This is likely due to the fact that they all germinated at the same time following a previous fire event.

If all reproductive individuals come from the same germination event and wildfires are now killing adults and seedlings alike, then there is serious cause for concern. Additionally, when we lose populations of Tecate cypress, we are losing much more than just the trees. As with any plant, these trees fit into the local ecology no matter how sparse they are on the landscape. At least one species of butterfly, the rare Thorne's hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus thornei), lays its eggs only on the scale-like leaves of the Tecate cypress. Without this tree, their larvae have nothing to feed on.

Thorne's hairstreak ( Callophrys gryneus thornei ), lays its eggs only on the scale-like leaves of the Tecate cypress.

Thorne's hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus thornei), lays its eggs only on the scale-like leaves of the Tecate cypress.

Although things in the wild seem uncertain for the Tecate cypress, there is reason for hope. Its lovely appearance and form coupled with its unique ecology has led to the Tecate cypress being something of a horticultural curiosity in the state of California. Seeds are easy enough to germinate provided you can get them out of the cones and the trees seem to do quite well in cultivation provided competition is kept to a minimum. In fact, specimen trees seem to adapt quite nicely to California's cool, humid coastal climate. Though the future of this wonderful endemic is without a doubt uncertain, hope lies in those who care enough to grow and cultivate this species. Better management practices regarding fire and invasive species, seed collection, and a bit more public awareness may be just what this species needs.

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

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

Dipterocarp Forests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some great land conservation organizations worth supporting:

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

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

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

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

urther Reading: [1]